At Risk, And In Westport

A provocative article in the New York Times suggests that the massive money today’s “economic elite” spend on their kids may not have the desired effect.

“Being groomed for the winner-take-all economy starting in nursery school turns out to exact a toll on the children at the top,” writes Chrystia Freeland, editor of Thomson Reuters Digital.

That’s not exactly rocket science. But what makes this story “06880” blog-worthy is that some of the research was done right here in 06880.

In other words: the “children being primed for that race to the top from preschool onward” are not just anyone’s kids.

They’re ours.

Dr. Suniya Luthar

Dr. Suniya Luthar

The researcher cited — Suniya S. Luthar, professor of psychology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College — has studied a generation of Westport students. The oldest are now in their 20s.

One of her first discoveries was that “substance use, depression and anxiety, particularly among the (affluent) girls, were much higher than among inner-city kids.”

Dr. Luthar’s research has led her to conclude that the children of privilege are an “at-risk” group, Freeland writes. “What we are finding again and again, in upper-middle-class school districts, is the proportion who are struggling are significantly higher than in normative samples,” (Luthar) said.

“It is an endless cycle, starting from kindergarten. The difficulty is that you have these enrichment activities. It is almost as if, if you have the opportunity, you must avail yourself of it. The pressure is enormous.”

Freeland writes:

Increasingly, we live in individualistic democracies whose credo is that anyone can be a winner if she tries. But we are also subject to increasingly fierce winner-take-all forces, which means the winners’ circle is ever smaller, and the value of winning is ever higher.

Life is not always easy in the 06880.

Life is not always easy in the 06880.

Luthar’s research subjects wonder, “What happens to me if I fall behind? I’ll be worth nothing.”

When we read stories “research,” we tend to think of nameless, faceless people in sterile labs.

In this case, the at-risk children we read about are very, very familiar. We see them every day.

They might even be here, next to us — looking safe and secure — as we read this disturbing story about their worrisome, insecure future.

15 responses to “At Risk, And In Westport

  1. Werner Liepolt

    It’s my understanding that ALL the Westport students in some years were the subjects of the study from elementary school through high school. the study was conducted through the schools, and the study continues even now.
    This might be a good topic to reinstate anonymity, at least for those who participated in the study…

  2. I felt this was true over 30 years ago …

  3. If I may amend that … we had an incredible education, and many advantages. It was a wonderful place to grow up, culturally, educationally, artistically. But in my year (Staples, class of mid-to late 1960s) we had a tragic double suicide, several traffic deaths, and by my last year, drug experimentation (not addiction, but definitely experimentation) was going on — despite (wouldn’t venture to say because of) our advantages.

    • Janice Beecher

      There was a ‘heroine epidemic’ in the late ’60s. Luckily I escaped that by moving to NYC. Go figger! But, my best friend was caught up in it.

  4. Jack Whittle

    The NYT article, and perhaps this blog post, assumes that many of Westport’s children are being “groomed for the race to the top” since we are a town of high-achieving parents. My kids, who are in school here in Westport, are being raised to be charitable, happy, productive and self-secure, with no financial or “top of the heap” goal posts after their education is complete. And we are not alone, at all, among Westport parents in this regard.

    As it was when I was raised here, when we were . . . a town filled with high-achieving parents. Just because we value and support (with our Town tax-dollars) the very best education system doesn’t mean we are “prim[ing] our children for that race to the top from preschool onward” – that’s an unsupported bourgeois conclusion about our motives which clouds the author’s empircal work.

  5. It brings to mind one of my favorite “school-days in 21st century Fairfield County” stories that I’ve ‘collected’ over the years…the one about the ‘Show-and-Tell’ in one local classroom where the 2nd grader brought in his financial portfolio to show his class. OMG. But presumably and hopefully, this is the exception and not the rule. It is a wake-up call, however, for all of us parents to keep an eye on where we are directing and guiding our children because, as I oftentimes say, ‘we are {all} a work in progress.’ Happy Mother’s Day!

  6. Fred Cantor

    Madeline–If that double suicide is the same one I’m aware of, I don’t think it really had to do with the premise of this study.

  7. Fred Cantor

    Also, from what I can see, specifically I think there is a lot more pressure today re what college kids are getting into–and their parents’ involvement in the process. Perhaps that has to do with college being so expensive and/or how the acceptance percentages are that much lower today.

  8. Wow Dan, my daughter and I arrived at the start of her 7th grade year, from a nearby town that had most of the characteristics of Westport, without the beach. That being said, “A” did participate in the Luther study from 7th through post graduation from a well known university and young working adulthood. It followed her ups and downs as she matured and evolved into the person she is today.

    My experiences growing up & living in high expectation communities, and then watching my child and her friends do the same: there are kids that will meet all spectrum of education, behaviors and employment. Some seem to thrive and flourish while others swim and sink. How is this different than any other community across the US?

    Lumping them into sections of psychology, drug & alcohol use, achievement and outcomes does little to address the key issues of how we as parents could help support our children through the maze of hurdles while helping them become independent, responsible adults.

  9. I am not sure I find great concern or empathy for entitled kids attending a safe, excellent school system compared with children who attend run-down, ill equipped and poorly taught schooling in the inner city. If Westport kids find pressure within their own nirvana, I pity their entrance into the real world.

  10. Janice Beecher

    They should have studied me back in the ’60s. I was a mess!!! The epitome of what happens when you don’t really fit in with the ‘popular’ or ‘beautiful’ people. I survived, but not without many struggles and wrong turns.

  11. Robert Coles in his “Children of Crisis” books documents cases of the “rich kids” having their problems too. No matter what side of the tracks you’re on, life has its challenges, doesn’t it? And let’s hope joys as well.

  12. Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D.

    Please forgive the late response to this posting; I only just saw it.

    I have four clarifications to offer: One, that the trends we first saw in Westport have been replicated now, repeatedly, in similar school districts across the country. This is not a “Westport” phenomenon; it is an upper middle class phenomenon.

    Two, the reasons for stresses among upper-middle class students are manifold. They go far beyond traits of individual students, families, and even schools, and tend to derive, ultimately, from the insidious and pervasive American credo of “Do more, achieve more”.

    Three, while an unusually large proportion of upper-middle class American students are “at-risk”, the majority are doing very well; our task is to determine what helps youth maintain their equanimity as they mature into young adults.

    Fourth and most importantly – I have the deepest respect for Westport. The forward thinking, courageous participation of students, parents, school administrators in this research – 15 years ago – have paved the way for an entire program of research across the country. We are now on the brink of a large-scale national discussion, in science and in the media, of how we can help reduce the major stressors facing upwardly mobile youth in today’s culture and economy. (With two young adult children myself, I know first-hand that this is an issue that urgently warrants attention.)

    Again, I salute the town of Westport, and am deeply grateful for all you have done toward helping illuminate how we can maximize the well-being of our children.