View From Glen Hill: Our children, ourselves

Suniya Luthar Ph.D., Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, spoke to a packed Little Theater audience at Wilton High School three weeks ago. Her groundbreaking studies over decades have found that “affluent teenagers have elevated levels of anxiety and depression that most people associate with children in poverty.”  

These privileged kids are actually, in fact, statistically frequently less happy than their counterparts in inner city communities as a result of intense peer pressure, heavy parental expectations (with wounding criticism that attacks self-worth when expectations are not met), and rampant substance abuse (starting in middle school). In fact, Luthar’s work began when she was studying inner-city students and wanted a control group.  She turned to Westport students for that purpose, but after doing her data-gathering, discovered that the more serious problems were actually found in affluent communities.  

Her and her colleagues’ confirming studies over the two decades since that first study have encompassed multiple communities across the country and also longitudinal studies that follow secondary school students all the way to 27 years of age. Her data indicate lifetime diagnoses of alcohol and drug dependency for an astounding 23%-40% of men and 19%-29% of women from these affluent communities.

Luthar has also traced the long-term effects of parental behavior. Her studies have divided parents into those who concentrate on achievement (in academics, sports, the arts) and those who focus on values: acting with thoughtfulness and compassion to address the needs of others. She found the outcome for those students who had parents who were either neutral as between the two or who emphasized values had markedly better later-year outcomes in avoiding substance abuse and depression and, ironically, even in academic achievement.

Additionally, Luthar underscores that children face enormous pressures in affluent communities to conform to what “everyone else” does. Those affluent “everyone elses” typically have access to financial resources and the means to obtain substances to abuse and are not afraid to exert pressure on their peers to join them. Resisting those pressures takes not only constant parental vigilance (for example, checking with hosting parents about party plans) but also the creation of a warm and loving home with definite boundaries enforced by parents who are present and engaged. (“Wherever you draw the line, they will go one step further. …”) It also takes candid discussions with children about those pressures and about their ability to say no, and about parental support for them in doing so, “keeping channels of communication open.”    

Interestingly, other research that focuses on much less affluent, and even poor, children actually offers an encouraging note. The research is summarized in Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Tough’s thesis is that a child’s success in life depends more on qualities of perseverance (the “grit” in his book’s title), resilience, conscientiousness, self-control, curiosity, optimism, and integrity than on many cognitive traits for which we have standardized testing.  Those traits Tough sums up with the word “character,” and the research he cites confirms that character is best developed in elementary and secondary school.

Having to face major obstacles early in life, whether poverty, disease or a badly dysfunctional family, can actually offer advantages to kids who can make the most of those experiences. Tough reports that “parents and other caregivers who are able to form close nurturing relationships with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh environment.”

The same observations apply to affluent kids whose prosperous family circumstances may not have provided those grit-enhancing experiences but whose parents’ introduction of them to tough circumstances in the world and how they can help is a huge character-building experience and, Luthar’s research shows, is most likely to lead to good long-term outcomes.

This is all weighty food for thought that deserves wide dissemination throughout our community, and beyond — as Wilton Youth Services and multiple Wilton nonprofits and task forces have been doing faithfully for years with compelling data. Professor Luthar’s research adds further very convincing data and allows life-transformative conclusions to be drawn from it.


Correction to my last, school-budget-related column: The final decision on use of the $900,000 in Comstock rebuild bond savings (that I suggested be applied to the Miller-Driscoll rebuild bonding) was, in fact, made to so apply those savings after my press deadline. Separately, I was wrong about the Board of Finance’s inclusion of the state revenue-sharing figure; it’s in the BOF’s bogey at the same amount the state actually provided to Wilton this past fiscal year.