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Rich Kid Syndrome

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“For rich children, it’d be very easy and convenient never to take any steps to build an identity outside of your association with your family’s wealth,” says Jamie Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune and director of the 2003 documentary about the children of wealth, Born Rich. “And that, honestly, is I think what you see in my film more than anything else. That’s where those feelings of entitlement come from, that’s where you get the snobbery, that’s why those characters seem, at times, offensive.”

Successful wealth cultures generally attach wealth to virtue. The Rockefellers, for instance, have a long and abiding tradition of public service and hard work in their family tree, producing, four generations later, a senator (Jay), a well-respected religion professor at Middlebury (Steven), and a well-loved doctor in Portland, Maine (Dick). But watching many of the kids in Born Rich, one doesn’t exactly get the sense they were raised in homes where virtue was made top priority. Most memorably, Luke Weil, heir to the Autotote gaming fortune, described how Brown University couldn’t bring itself to kick him out because it needed his family’s money—“I think I attended less than eight academic commitments”—and added that in boarding school, whenever a classmate would annoy him, he knew “I can just say, ‘Fuck you, I’m from New York. I can buy your family; piss off.’ ”

Yet even Weil, easily the film’s most despicable character (he sued Johnson for defamation in the film’s aftermath), said that he yearned one day to be “indispensable”—more or less proving Luthar’s point about the crisis of purpose in rich kids and their yearnings to be successful. I tried to find Weil for this story, curious to see if he’d succeeded at making himself useful since the film’s release five years ago. I learned that he’d certainly tried, working at Bear Stearns and enrolling at Columbia Business School. I also found that he recently got sprung from a detention center in Manhattan after assaulting his girlfriend.

“I think some rich kids just feel they’ll never be able to go for the brass ring, because someone beat them to it,” says Harris Stratyner, a Manhattan psychologist and vice-president of Caron Treatment Centers whose clientele leans heavily toward children of the wealthy. “So they say, ‘Screw it. I’m gonna play around and have anger and hostility toward everyone.’ They’re the ones who say, ‘I didn’t ask to be born.’”

Then what, I ask Stratyner, do the most distressed rich kids fantasize about when it comes to their family money? That they didn’t have it?

“Rarely,” he answers. “They’re not stupid.”

Having less?

“No, not really.”

So what, then?

He thinks for a long moment, then finally gives an answer. “That they’d made it themselves.”

Almost everyone who’s ever worked with rich children or their parents has a making-the-bed story. It’s a chestnut, a cliché almost, a cautionary tale about the first twinkle of entitled behavior in a lifetime of potential cupidity, and it goes something like this: Mom wanders into the bedroom, notices her child’s bed is still in a rumple, and asks the child to tidy it up. The child, usually about 7 and suddenly wise to the hidden economy of the house, replies, “That’s not my job. She’s paid to do that,” and points to the housekeeper. Susan Bradley, founder of the Sudden Money Institute, once ran a forum for wealthy parents at which one of them reported that their child was paying the housekeeper to make his bed. “And everyone thought this was hilarious and very enterprising, showing early business capabilities and that kind of thing,” says Bradley.

It turns out there’s research to back up their hand-wringing. Writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1981, George Vaillant, a Harvard psychiatrist who’s spent the bulk of his career devoted to the study of adult resilience and coping, argued that childhood capacity for work is one of the best predictors of adult mental health and the capacity to love. He based his conclusion on a famous longitudinal study of 456 young men from inner Boston who, starting in the forties, were followed beginning at age 14. All came from blue-collar and welfare families, and none, at least at the time of their selection, had juvenile records. The subjects were assigned ratings for their ability to work as teenagers—in school, at home, in jobs outside the home, in extracurricular pursuits—and they were reinterviewed at several intervals since, at ages 25, 31, 47. The outcomes were pretty stark. Those who demonstrated the greatest capacity for work as 14-year-olds were five times more likely to be paid well for their work at 47 than those who scored lowest, and sixteen times less likely to have experienced unemployment—and intelligence, Vaillant was careful to note, did little to mediate the latter outcomes. They were also twice as likely to have warm relations with a wide variety of people and almost twice as likely to still be enjoying their first marriages. But perhaps the most striking datum was what Vaillant wryly called a “value-free definition of health”: Those who had the poorest ratings were six times as likely, at age 47, to be dead.


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