For those upwardly mobile urban residents who live in Brentwood, the upper east side of New York, Chicago’s Gold Coast or places where the aspiring masters of the universe set up house, children are not small flesh and blood people; they are commodities. Their value fluctuates like the gold market. What counts, of course, is whether they can enhance the reputation of parents, and whether parents can live vicariously through the exploits of kids.
At a recent dinner event several guests regaled me with stories of their children’s achievements. That is well and good since parents who have something positive to say about their kids might as well let other guests in on the success. But at one point, a fellow said my son disappoints me, “he didn’t get into Harvard.” I asked if he (the dad) went to Harvard. He said, “no but I was counting on my son to get in.” I innocently noted that this rejection would probably not have the slightest influence on the young man’s future. Dad demurred, “of course it will; I was counting on it.”
This conversation has been repeated many times, in many places. Each time I come away perplexed. Why would parents be disappointed that a son or daughter didn’t get in to an Ivy League college, especially if they didn’t get in to one themselves? Moreover, why be disappointed in this child who didn’t get admitted to an elite school? It is precisely because it is elite that everyone doesn’t get in. This rejection doesn’t ensure failure in life, just as acceptance doesn’t ensure success.
The answer to this conundrum is that upper middle class kids are treated as commodities. It is what they do that matters, not who they are. The marketplace of conversation is dependent on the conditions that allow one to boast about the children in a social game of one-upsmanship. Here is reverse projection: the parents derive prestige from what their children achieved. I can remember a time when kids, who took pride in their parents accomplishments, wanted to emulate them. How quaint that seems at the moment.
This children’s commodities market has its up and downs just like the Mercantile Market. On some days Johnny’s stock goes up; he won his tennis match or got 1600 on the SAT. On other days his stock goes down; he didn’t win a Merit Scholarship or he struck out in the 9th with the bases loaded. This rollercoaster effect is found in everyone’s life and surely boasting about children is not uncommon. What makes this condition odd is the lack of intrinsic value in the child. Kids must produce to have value just as corporate value is dependent on earnings.
Not only does this put inordinate pressure on children; it is an attitude hostile to the very nature of a parent-child relationship. It dehumanizes the kid and grotesquely limns the parents. In this human calculus one weighs the scales of achievements and failures using the most superficial of standards to register a judgment. Is Johnny less of a person because he didn’t get in to Harvard?
Fortunately this slice of life is restricted to an affluent portion of the population that has the opportunity to preoccupy themselves with fantasies of their offspring’s accomplishments. Very often what dad or mom couldn’t do for themselves, they expect from their children. After all, they offered every privilege money can provide, now results are expected.
Where this leads is already clear: psychiatrists treat more children of the wealthy than ever before. Children are driven to succeed and become depressed when unrealistic standards are not met. Parents, on the other hand, are frantic. If Mary isn’t always attentive in school, she becomes a candidate for Ritalin. If Johnny only scored 1500 on the SAT, Kaplan or Princeton Review sessions will be in his future. It is not merely the edge Mom and Dad want for their children; it’s the “stock price” of the offspring.
Children as commodities may seem as a harsh idea, but it is a part of current reality in my opinion. The problem is kids often can’t reach the expectations parents have for them and the market suffers from irrational exuberance. Perhaps this market will also burst like its analogue on Wall Street. That might release the pressure at home, but its consequence for society would be very profound indeed.