Mom blogs and news sources alike have been atwitter this week on the case of Ethan Couch, a Texas teen who was let off without jail time despite killing four people while driving under the influence of alcohol. Couch’s lawyers argued that he suffers from “affluenza,” a condition that they defined as an inability to associate actions with consequences, as a result of growing up in a wealthy household, where money was always used to solve any problem. Ultimate culpability, they said, does not lie with him, but with his parents, who failed to instill him with a sense of responsibility and brought him up with a disproportionately large sense of entitlement.
“Affluenza” has since been summarily dismissed by psychologists as junk science, and even the author of the popular 1997 book Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic wrote a piece in Time magazine stating categorically that the term was intended as one of social critique, not psychology. Certainly, our research would indicate that there is little causality between wealth and moral degeneration. Asked which of a series of qualities best describe a good mother, U.S. moms picked, “She teaches her children a strong sense of right and wrong,” ahead even of “She always puts her children before herself,” and other more emotive qualities. This becomes more important with increasing income, with 17% of moms in households earning $49,999 or less, 22% of moms in households earning $50,000-$99,999 and 31% of moms in households earning $100,000+ picking this statement.
Granted, despite this focus on instilling their children with a strong moral code, and all the good intentions they might bring to bear in their child-rearing decisions, parents are far from being the sole influencers in the lives of their hyper-connected children. Technology, and the pervasiveness of information that it has enabled, certainly have a role to play. Over a third of moms with children between the ages of 11 and 15 say their children have their own smartphones, giving them access to news about Miley Cyrus’s latest antics, Kim Kardashian’s latest fashions and the Rich Kids of Instagram’s most recent excesses. Such exposure to materialism and bad behavior, particularly in people who are lionized for having fame and fortune, could arguably have a less than savory influence on teenagers, especially ones with the means to mimic such behavior.
Then again, we've all heard the argument that Millennials are lazy, selfish, entitled and narcissistic.
However, when all’s said and done, it would be overly simplistic to attribute the strength of these characteristics, accurate or not, to the wealth of the household in which a Millennial grew up. If there’s one thing you learn in research, it’s that overly simplistic generalizations about large groups of people, never mind entire generations, are fraught with difficulty. This is why affluenza is not a real disease, and why it most certainly isn’t viral.