Sunday, April 1, 2007

Poor Perfect Affluent Kids?

Snarky as the title sounds, I'm not entirely kidding. I caught Bitch, Ph.D.'s summary of Sarah Rimer's New York Times article on "amazing girls" - girls who are smart, attractive, high-achieving, confident, personable, and apparently still "not enough". Coupled with the fact that I read Alexandra Robbins' "The Overachievers" not too long ago, it seems like the focus on the plight of those who have everything is rather high-profile as of late.

Robbins states immediately in her book that she doesn't want her readers to roll their eyes and scoff at the problems of fortunate kids, emphasizing that while the rich and opportunity-laden subjects of her books may not be your standard poverty-stricken protagonists, the problems and stresses they face are very real to them and should not be dismissed lightly. I was careful to heed this warning as I read the book, since my background is quite different from the students she wrote about. The particular topic of my earlier education is a subject for another post - so bear with me and with these authors and, if necessary, suspend your disbelief about how unfortunate these students *really* are.

What both Robbins and Rimer are rightly focusing on is: who, exactly, is telling this students they are inadequate? Are these students simply unhappy because, well, you're not supposed to be happy with yourself in today's world? You're constantly supposed to be seeking self-improvement and combing yourself and your resume for flaws that potential employers/admissions officers might pounce on.

You're Supposed to Be Perfect
The article describes the standard-issue cookie-cutter Perfect College Application: president of everything, AP classes everywhere, three-season varsity so-and-so, volunteers with underprivileged this-and-that, popular, good-looking, confident (not feminized, but still feminine, of course), perfect GPA, perfect SAT's, and a compulsory "quirk" or "hook": fluent in Russian, spent a summer working with animals in Thailand, won a national award for science, blah blah...wait...

THIS has become STANDARD? Good lord. No wonder these kids are giant lumps of insecure. People, especially my more insecure peers, like to scoff at these lists: "Oh, god, how hard is it to get a 5 on an AP test these days? The SATs are soooo easy. Come on, they're letting everybody and their brother onto the varsity squad now." Well, guess what? It's still pretty goddamn hard. Just getting to the level of a standard "good applicant" has become ridiculous.

You're Not Supposed to Be Happy
If I had had all of those credentials after my name in high school, I doubt I would have been so insecure. I would have thought I was Hot Shit. Hell, I had decent credentials that weren't nearly as impressive as these kids and I still thought I was Hot Shit. It wasn't ugly arrogance (well, not much) - it was more a case of "Yeah, that's me! I did all that myself! Woohoo!"

I see two explanations behind this: one is that these kids are not idiots, and they recognize that they've been handed opportunities on a silver platter. They KNOW that they're doing this well in part because they can afford to live in the Newton North or Whitman school districts, because their parents pay for violin lessons and drive them to soccer practice and hire college counselors and buy them the clothes that allow them to fit in. There is something missing in terms of their being able to say "I did all that myself!" They could be scared that, when the support system drops away, they'll disappoint people. Call it privilege or imposter syndrome, but it seems like a real scenario to me.

The other is that someone is telling these kids they're not good enough. In truth, I suspect these might be the rich, talented, affluent parents making sure their rich, talented, affluent kids don't get swollen heads. As someone who is none of these things, I feel safe saying that being a Rich Talented Affluent is socially out of style at the moment, particularly among the liberal crowd. You're supposed to be apologizing for your good fortune, after all, not enjoying it.

Conversely, there are also people (college counselors spring to mind) who are living so deeply inside the bubble that this level of achievement really does seem ho-hum. In my experience, these are the folks who start resenting the students like me, who had what I've heard one counselor call "the underprivileged hook". This implication that being underprivileged is actually a privilege is so ridiculous I can't even go into it here - but it starts tying back into the general resentment women and minorities face when they start getting pieces of what used to be someone else's pie.

You're Supposed to be Perfect and Unhappy for the Benefit of Others
One of the girls in the NYT article mentions pressure to get a high-paying job so she can give her kids the life she's had. It's easy to see how this can spiral out of control - the better you're doing, the better you have to do so your future children can do better than you, etc. etc.
Parental and societal pressure is also obviously enormous. Think of Little Johnny Legacy - if Senator Daddy went to Harvard and former-CEO Mommy went to Yale (remember, Yale women "opt out" when the kids come along! *grumble*), it's a lead pipe cinch he's not going to be going to Harvey Mudd, Oberlin, or Reed, even if he wants to. (and those are all still Really Good Schools). For the love of god, these kids are eighteen - selfish has become a dirty word, but if you can't pursue your own personal interest as a naturally self-centered teenager, when can you?

In general, this topic seems to be a popular trend as of late, and one that intrigues me as a bit of an outsider. I'll probably write about it more in the future (Bitch, Ph.D. covers the gendered aspect of it quite well, which is something I haven't even touched yet), but for now I'd be interested to hear what other people's thoughts are on this.

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