Well-heeled parents accused of “affluent neglect”

3 Jan

Public opinion is suffused with commentaries from pundits of how parents from the lower strata of society let down their children big time by not giving them the love, kindness and attention they deserve.   In November 2014, Ms Clarissa Farr, the Headteacher of St Paul’s Girls’ School in West London, one of the most prestigious not only in this country but the world and where fees are £21,000 (circa) annually, told The Times, that many of her charges were falling victims of “affluent neglect”.

While rich parents have come to realise that youngsters would much prefer to be brought up at home than wheeled (or flown) off to boarding school from the age of 4 – they have been overtaken by a disease so elegantly defined by Ms Farr.  Children of the rich and the ultra-rich may not be confined to dormitories; rather they are put in the care of nannies – generally from Eastern Europe or the Orient – receive extra dollops of tutoring after school and coached by sports women and men – but are left bereft of the breakfast and dinner time family conversations because both, their mums and dads, are at work in this country or abroad.  Parenting is, effectively, outsourced.

Suniya Luthar, professor of psychology at Columbia University, has put her finger on the button, when stating that children from affluent backgrounds suffer “literal and emotional isolation”.  In the three studies she conducted comparing the children from the poorest with those from the richest backgrounds, she discovered that both spent tiny amounts of time with parents, but the richer – especially teenage girls – suffered far more from anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol misuse.

In one of the studies, she wrote: “Although in no way detracting from the formidable challenges faced by the poor, it is vital that psychologists correct their long-standing lack of concern with the isolation unique to affluence.  No child should want for either food or affection; at the same time it is worth remembering that, forced to choose, baby monkeys preferred the latter” – i.e. affection.

A prep school teacher told Helen Rumbelow, The Times journalist, that her pupils behaved exactly like those in a deprived neighbouring state school.   Both lots hardly saw their parents and had problems speaking English, the children from the deprived backgrounds because there was so little interaction with their parents and those from the richer classes because they spent considerable time with Filipina nannies, who had little vocabulary.

Two out of three children in England eat their main meal with parents at least three times a week.   It is considerably fewer with those who come from families that are monetarily laden.  Parents in this bracket are so busy earning more than a living that they have forgotten how to live and why they have brought their children into this world.

At the other extreme and within the affluence bracket, we have “helicopter” parents, who are constantly on the backs of their children wanting them to be at the top of their classes.    Second-best is never good enough for them.  They sometimes, as a consequence, drive their children to a state of insanity.   Ms Farr has described them as “snowplough” parents.

Amy Chua, Yale Law Professor, and her book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mum, spring to mind.  She advocated a strict approach often found in East Asia.  However, Stanford University researchers, Alyssa Fu and Hazel Markus, suggested that there is a place for culture-centric approaches to good parenting.   Motivation is understood to come from within individuals in Western families while children of Asian origin find strength in parental expectations.

Fu, a doctoral student of psychology and the lead author of the study wrote: “While European American parents give their children wings to fly on their own, Asian American parents provide a constant wind beneath their children’s wings.”   This appeared to be the aim of Chua when bringing up her daughters.

I am not talking about that kind of parenting; rather the parenting that berates children for being “beaten” at school by their compatriots and seldom if ever encourages them for their successes.  This leads to emotional suffocation.   I recall when I was the headteacher of an independent primary school in London arguing strenuously with parents that their children were sometimes only good or very good rather than being brilliant.

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