Moments before affluenza-stricken Texas teen Ethan Couch killed 4 people while driving drunk in 2013, he was brazenly playing chicken with oncoming traffic at high speeds. His souped-up pick-up was full of other teens in varying states of drunkenness as he sped recklessly down Burleson-Rhetta road, where he then caused the devastating collision. Then just 16 and extremely intoxicated, Ethan managed to escape the wreckage with a few scrapes.
In fact, he was so physically fine after the crash that he had the energy to belligerently fight off the officers on the scene as they tried to provide him with medical attention. His concern, according to witnesses, was the cost of the ambulance and medical fees, and not the well-being of the 4 people who, thanks to his reckless joyride, lay dying at his feet. His lack of concern is just one of the disturbing effects that affluence can have on children – and it is not okay.
The Evils of Affluenza
From a young age, Ethan turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with his unhappy, albeit wealthy, family life, and he wasn’t the only rich kid to take that route. In several studies conducted over the last 20 years, it is evident that children and young people who grow up wealthy are twice as likely to seek assistance with their depression, anxiety, and substance abuse than those without substantial wealth – and the numbers are rising.
Psychologist and Professor Suniya Luthar, who has been studying the effects of affluenza on children since the late 1990s, says that the increased pressure to be successful in life goes hand in hand with wealth, which could account for the increase in depression and substance abuse. In wealthy families, children have little to prevent them from succeeding as adults, and this can cause the pressure on them to rise to dangerous levels.
According to Dr. Luthar, if our sense of self-worth is directly related to what we accomplish in life, we “live in a state of fear of not achieving … something that puts us in a state of anxiety and the failures and a state of depression. To medicate, to self-medicate these feelings of anxiety and depression unfortunately, a lot of our kids are turning to drugs and alcohol.”
And for Ethan, getting his hands on drugs and alcohol was no issue at all: he had the money and all the freedom in the world to spend it as he saw fit, and no one batted an eye.
“We have the money, we make the rules.”
It’s odd that Ethan worried about the cost at the time of the accident, since he lived a life of luxury that most teenagers would envy, thanks to his father’s lucrative sheet metal business. He was given everything he wanted: his own credit card, motorbikes and quads, and all the best electronics and gaming consoles. He also had virtually no supervision at his family’s sprawling Burleson home, where he was free to throw wild parties night after night. Everything Ethan asked for, he received.
What he really needed, however, was to be parented with a little more care and a lot less money. Warren Buffet once said, “A very rich person should leave his kids enough to do anything, but not enough to do nothing.” Ethan needed his parents to teach him the difference between right and wrong, and, most importantly, that his actions would be met with consequences.
He needed to be raised to be a good human, to have some empathy – to care, even a little, about someone else. According to Dr. Dick Millar, the psychologist who treated Ethan after the accident, there was no concept of the golden rule in their home. Instead, his parents taught him, “we have the money, we make the rules.” Ethan would likely have benefited more from following the original golden rule, and what’s more, 4 people might still be living today if he had.
Of course, he didn’t ask to be parented this way – he was just a kid. The Couches, who divorced in 2006, had a hands off approach in raising Ethan and rarely told him “no.” His drug and alcohol issue was no secret, either, as he had been charged with substance-induced crimes on more than one occasion prior to the fatal crash, and there were no consequences. The writing was and has been on the wall for some time, but no one intervened, and now there are several people paying for it dearly.
Thankfully there are wealthy parents in the world who want to avoid raising another Ethan Couch. Aside from teaching their children the value of earning their own money, they are also teaching their children to be kind and considerate by encouraging them to volunteer. Robin Taub, author of the book, A Parent’s Guide to Raising Money-Smart Kids, says that “volunteering teaches [your children] to be compassionate and grateful for what they have.”
Affluenza is acquired, not innate, children need parents to love them and nurture them, but they also need limits and to be taught the consequences of their actions. As parents, we owe it not only to our own children, but to the families of those 4 lives lost that tragic night in Texas. For them it is too late, and while Ethan now has a chance to find some redemption, there’s nothing he can do to bring them back either – no matter how rich he is. In the words of the late great Bob Marley, “money can’t buy life.”