Editor’s Note: From a September 2003 article, I learned of a “disease” that renders parents unable to stop buying things for their spoiled children. Evidently, they’d like to close their wallets, but it’s just too hard. I felt such compassion for these wealthy moms and dads, stricken as they are with such a painful condition, that I was compelled to write this article (Jesus, I hope that didn’t come off as sarcastic). I try to be as sympathetic as I can for a condition that falls into the category of “only in America.”


Stricken With Conspicuous Consumption

 

At first, I thought it was a joke, until I noticed where these people were living. According to The Stamford Advocate (9/30/03), 60 parents in Greenwich, Connecticut, met with a clinical psychologist to learn more about a classic local dilemma — the compulsion to spoil their children.

Naturally, a medical term has been coined for this addiction. At a time when the psychotherapy industry has appended the “-aholic” suffix to everything from sex to chocolate, it’s not surprising that wealthy, suburban shopaholics suffer from an affliction called “affluenza.”

Having grown up there, I’m tempted to say that only in Greenwich would you need to organize a workshop to explain the irresistible urge to buy your 12-year-old a $300 blouse at Saks. You might think that only the residents of the richest town in Connecticut would need a professional to tell them that addictive shopping is a sign of an “emotional void.” However, although Greenwich may be ground zero for this “sickening epidemic of overconsumption,” such gluttony is typical of this area as a whole.

Fairfield County has a private psychiatric hospital with an entire ward devoted to eating disorders. What can you say about a place where seemingly normal teenage girls require treatment for a condition that compels them to eat enormous meals, then throw them up to make room for the next dining experience? Talk about conspicuous consumption. Do you suppose there’s a word in the Rwandan or the Bengali language that conveys the concept of bulimia? They may have a word similar to anorexia, but I suspect its meaning is closer to starvation.

Suburban girls unnaturally obsessed with food are emblematic of a spoiled society in which everyone wants to eat their cake and have it too. A mother who “couldn’t think of a good reason to say ‘no’ to her children since she clearly had the money to spoil them” is unlikely to see anything unnatural about spending the GNP of a third-world nation on their birthday celebrations. And a six-year-old who’s become accustomed to having small amusement parks rented out for her parties is eventually going to expect a prom that needs to be financed with a home-equity loan.

After riding to a four-star hotel in a limousine so stretched its design requires compensation for the curvature of the earth, gowned in a prom dress made of spun platinum, the young lady will be primed for the gold standard of affluenza — the Fairfield County wedding. Often taking longer to plan than the marriage lasts, its logistics can rival the invasion of Normandy, with more milestone events than the Apollo space program and a budget bigger than a Halliburton golden parachute. Heaven help the father with a full stable of marriageable daughters.

But it’s not just a Connecticut syndrome: We Americans as a whole often behave like spoiled children. As the biggest kid on the block, we love to throw our weight around. We were exultant about the war in Iraq when it was Mission Accomplished, but now that it’s becoming a quagmire — a Vietnam with sand, Shi’ites and suicide bombers — more and more of us would like to take our ball and go home.

And God help anyone who suggests we pay for this war. We’ve decided to let someone else worry about the bill at some future date. For now, just give us bigger tax cuts we can spend on bigger SUVs and more-expensive electronics for our children.

It’s inconceivable that our current administration would raise taxes on the rich to fund benefits for the less fortunate. Likewise, affluenza sufferers — so self-absorbed they need psychologists to cope with the “urge to spend excessive amounts of money” on things they know they don’t need, but feel that have to buy anyway — are unlikely to worry about the poor. Not when spoiling their children is “easier than taking a stand on values.”

You might think this is just a snotty overreaction to people who are sincerely whining about their hopes for “potential cures” for the “pressures they feel living and raising children in Greenwich.” Or perhaps you suspect I’m bitter about growing up working class in a town where I had to listen to my classmates bellyache about the indignities of skiing domestically over Christmas vacation.

You could be right. Sometimes, I wonder whether — just as youth is wasted on the young — wealth is wasted on the wealthy. Or maybe I’m just disappointed that my parents never suffered from a bout of affluenza.


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