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The Good Life Becomes the Goods Life

Psychologists call the excessive desire for material things 'affluenza.' Condition is especially obvious in wealthy areas.

November 02, 2003|John Christoffersen | Associated Press Writer

GREENWICH, Conn. — Lisa Tebbe was trying to arrange a play date between her 6-year-old daughter and a boy. She was puzzled when her daughter resisted.

Tebbe reminded her daughter that she liked to play with the boy.

"But I don't know how big his house is," her daughter said.

"I looked at her and I was shocked," Tebbe said. "Where she got that was beyond me."

Perhaps she was showing early signs of "affluenza," a catchy term that psychologists have given the excessive desire to consume material goods.

Tebbe cited the incident as one of the reasons she attended an affluenza workshop last month with about 60 parents in this wealthy town on the Connecticut-New York border.

"The good life has become the goods life," said John de Graaf, co-author of the book, "Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic." "It's mindless overconsumption without thought to its impact on our health, our friends, our communities and our environment."

Affluenza is a national problem but, de Graaf said, it can show up in children in wealthy areas such as Greenwich, where the median household income is $109,214.

Outside Greenwich High School, where parents wait in a line of luxury cars to pick up their children, Anthony Rinaldi said he's seen symptoms in his 16-year-old son. The teenager wants a new Volkswagen Jetta, but has no interest in working in the family's two delis.

"What's it called when the kids get money for doing chores?" Rinaldi asked, struggling to remember a quaint notion. "What's the term they use -- an allowance?"

Rinaldi, 42, stared at the silver Mercedes-Benz parked in front of his Audi, convinced that it belonged to a high school student. He sees teenagers dining in fancy restaurants around town using their parents' credit cards.

"There's such a ridiculous reality check," said Rinaldi, who said he puts in about 70 hours at work each week. "I don't think this generation has a grasp on how difficult it is going to be to survive, to stay here."

Joe Krauss, 16, came out of Greenwich High talking on his cellphone. He seemed puzzled by the notion of affluenza.

"It doesn't really apply to me that much," Joe said. "I don't buy that much stuff."

But his friend Justin Brown, 16, said he sees plenty of signs around Greenwich.

"It's a rich town," Justin said. "Kids can get pretty much whatever they want here. Parents buy their kids a BMW as soon as they get their license. They don't get jobs."

But he sees a downside to having it all so young.

"As a teenager, you should have to do some things for yourself," he said. "Otherwise when you have to go into the real world, it's going to be a lot harder."

A lack of motivation is one of many consequences of affluenza, said Jessie O'Neill, granddaughter of a General Motors president who runs a project on affluenza. Children reared in such environments often have an inability to delay gratification and a false sense of entitlement stemming from years of being treated as special by the household help, she said.

"It's the 'I want what I want when I want it' syndrome," said O'Neill, author of the book "The Golden Ghetto, the Psychology of Affluence."

O'Neill acknowledged that affluenza, which she described as a dysfunctional or unhealthy relationship with money or the pursuit of wealth, is not likely to draw much sympathy from those not afflicted.

"Nobody wants to admit wealthy people have problems because that's everybody's goal -- to be wealthy," she said.

She attributes affluenza to a cultural myth that money buys happiness and cures problems.

Workshop participants, mostly women, spoke about the pressures they feel living in and rearing children in Greenwich. One woman said she spent money to fill an emotional void. Another said she considered shopping a sport. Another said she couldn't think of a good reason to say no to her children because she clearly had the money to spoil them.

There is a cure, said psychologist Kaye Moore, who led the Greenwich workshop. Parents need to find exciting activities that could replace the eating and spending, she said. Those afflicted must come to realize that buying things to "look good" has never really yielded lifelong friendships or self-satisfaction. Parents must also be clear about rules and budgets with children.

"The kids want to overspend for the exact same reasons we do," Moore said. "They feel inadequate and insecure."

Tebbe said she has enforced the idea of religion in her family so that there is a value and a goal larger than money. She considers herself fortunate to live in Greenwich, but worries about the impact on her children, noting the new "mcmansions" with too many bedrooms to fill, the luxury cars in the high school parking lot and a scenic beach with a view of the New York City skyline.

"They don't really understand that this is so unique and special, because that's all they've ever known," Tebbe said.

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