Rich parents are just like the rest of us: They don’t want to raise spoiled kids.
In “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence,” sociologist Rachel Sherman interviewed 50 New York City parents with incomes of at least $US250,000 a year.
Largely, she found, they struggled with feeling and being “worthy” of their wealth, knowing that they inhabit incredible privilege, but wanting to distance themselves from the consumerist, morally bankrupt stereotype of a rich person that pervades popular media.
They considered themselves to be normal people living normal lives, spending on the same things as anyone else: their kids. Many of her subjects expressed the fear that their kids’ advantages early in life would colour their success in the future, and strove to keep those kids from turning out to be, as one subject said, “lazy jerks.”
“They want their children to see themselves as ‘normal’ (and therefore just like everyone else) but also to appreciate their advantages (which make them different from others),” Sherman writes. “In the end, they instill and reproduce ideas about how to occupy privilege legitimately without giving it up — how to be a ‘good person’ with wealth.”
But there’s a twist: The parents themselves struggled with the understandable impulse to provide their kids with every advantage, to give them whatever they had to give. Therefore, Sherman found, they were comfortable with their kids being entitled … but not acting like it. “I came to see that the kind of entitlement parents wanted to avoid was behavioural and emotional, not material,” she wrote. “As long as they don’t act or feel entitled, children remain legitimately entitled to resources.”
They communicate this message primarily in two ways, Sherman found: constraint and exposure.
“First, they talked about limiting children’s behaviour and their consumption of material goods, experiences, and labour. Placing boundaries on kids’ entitlement to consume would, parents hoped, also constrain their sense of entitlement more broadly. And requiring labour of them would instill a strong work ethic and a sense of self-sufficiency.
“Second, these parents tried to expose their children to class difference, in both imaginary and concrete ways, in order to help them understand their advantaged social location and get a sense of what a ‘normal’ life is. These ideals had instrumental aspects — that is, parents imagine that having a solid work ethic and being comfortable with people different from themselves would help their children succeed in a risky world.”
These strategies don’t sound so different from any other family, insisting kids do chores and hold summer jobs to develop a work ethic, or volunteering with charities to become aware of those who have less. However, Sherman found, being “legitimately entitled” to resources means they have the same resources as they would were they not legitimately entitled — that is, perhaps, spoiled.
“Ultimately, the parents are not challenging their children’s advantage but, instead, teaching them how to occupy their advantaged position appropriately,” Sherman writes. She continues: “This legitimately entitled self faces the contradiction we have seen before: between erasing class difference through treating everyone the same and recognising this difference through ‘awareness’ of privilege.”
“Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence” is available now on Amazon (and is fascinating).