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2024-04-01 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine The Dawn of Anti-Entitlement

The Dawn of Anti-Entitlement

New York's silver-spoon kids are waking up with a fresh set of values
Photo via iStock/Dmitry Kuznetsov

Say what you will about the rich kids of Manhattan, but they usually know more than their parents about social media — that one clueless, poolside post from the Maldives can lead to a million mean reaction videos on TikTok. But in this time when “privileged” has become one of the most insulting adjectives, a wave of affluent progeny are showing that they want more than stealth wealth while slumming it in Dimes Square. For example, right out of college, Anna Pei (granddaughter of architecture icon I.M. Pei) founded an archival business, Ode, that works with select, high-end families.

“To be able to afford to live here [in New York City] decently offers a distorted picture,” says Dr. Lisa Napolitano, a psychologist in Miami and New York working with parents and children of means. “There’s a tendency to compare yourself, but you are really comparing yourself to a skewed sample.” Take, for instance, the family who ordered takeout from three different places nightly, leaving them with boxes of food like Wegmans at 8:30 PM, until they realized they would save thousands of dollars with a personal chef.

“In Manhattan, with private schools in the mid-50ks, there’s a bit of a cognitive disconnect,” says Rosalind Wiseman, author of the landmark book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence (the basis for Mean Girls). That makes teaching a kid to be “anti-entitled” in this city difficult. Especially when, by age three, every morning, they were asked, “Do you want a croissant or a scone?” Having a 24-hour driver to take your teen from your Brooklyn Heights brownstone to Avenues every day is how Kendall Roy of Succession grew up, not normal people.

“There isn’t a lot of interaction going on. With their handy smartphones, parents are constantly monitoring their kids,” says a Manhattan high school principal. “Also, these kids are all really booked. Between extracurriculars and soccer practice and gymnastics, who has time to step outside their demographic and meet someone different than them?”

“I have to coach my kids not to talk about their lives — going to openings and trips and stuff,” says a successful theater professional. Hopes are that your kid doesn’t flaunt their wealth like the rich high schooler who buys a $500 sweater almost every day after school and then throws it in the trash. “Especially when going to school with different financial brackets. It’s not about being embarrassed, it’s about knowing your audience.”

Given phones to stare into and a classroom filled with other kids in their class status creates a generation of children who don’t have basic social skills in public. The red flag? When they are rude to a waiter or doorman.

“They need to learn that you won’t protect them when they are obnoxious,” says Wiseman. “Don’t apologize for them. If you see them being rude to a service person, say, ‘On behalf of my family and my child, I am really sorry,’ and say that in front of the child. There’s a time when good embarrassment is a good thing.”

Dressed to Suppress
While teaching your child not to gloat is important, the issue of entitlement can’t be swept under the Persian carpet. Therapists agree that hiding or creating an atmosphere of secrecy around your wealth does more harm than good. “Denying your wealth is a form of repression,” explains Dr. Napolitano. And if you are not honest — or, even worse, ashamed — about your money, a child will pick up on it with their mysterious emotional antenna. It’s a vibe thing, as the kids say.

“Pretending not to be rich or privileged doesn’t work,” explains Rick Miller, a private practice psychotherapist. “You are giving them a message not to be who you are. You end up projecting a social awkwardness because you aren’t really allowed to let your breath out.” We’re talking about the socialite who tips terribly, always complains she’s broke, and makes her daughter fly coach. Adds Dr. Napolitano: “Social anxiety is the fear of negative evaluation. In this case, looking affluent.”

This social anxiety has only worsened since the pandemic. In our post-Covid era, when second homes are secondhand, socializing has whittled down, and there’s less connection happening. “Young adults are more isolated. I do think the social landscape has changed,” observes Dr. Napolitano. “I have clients who just entered the workforce, and it’s not the NYC of happy hours and nightlife on the level it was before. So many of those social avenues have been disrupted,” leading many to hide under their Pendleton blankets in their Hudson Yards apartments ordering from Caviar, not even realizing their own social agoraphobia.

Photo via iStock/Martin Dimitrov

As a licensed cognitive behavioral therapist, one of the first steps Dr. Napolitano takes to get a client out of their shame cloud is to flip the script. “The task is to engage in gratitude practice. Rather than feeling guilty, feeling grateful.” Dr. Napolitano works with clients on a “values inventory.” “It’s a conversation, a series of questions, and we examine how values are reflected in people who we admire.”

Cognitive behavioral therapy is about actions, which is why it’s such a popular form of therapy for New Yorkers. “Once we identify the values, the goal is to build community into their life based on those values: joining a group, volunteering, donating time. If someone has social anxiety, it’s not easy work. But we begin to see real change by six months,” Dr. Napolitano reports.

Not for everyone, though. “In over 20 years, there was one person who truly did value money as an end to itself,” remembers Dr. Napolitano. “We do an epitaph exercise (‘What would you want written on your grave?’), that typically helps people realize what’s important. He literally wanted his net worth on his tombstone.”

“I know plenty of wealthy families with anti-entitled, well-adjusted kids and there is a theme,” says Wiseman. “For their first job, they worked in hotels and did maid service or dish washing at a restaurant. If they do that, your children are going to deeply respect how hard people work in the service industry.”

Ritualizing the Moment
Anna Catherine Rutledge runs the Ethical Teen, an interfaith coming-of-age program she developed after her own son turned 13. “I felt a calling when my kid was coming of age.” In a city where someone hired Cardi B and the Knicks City Dancers to perform at Tao for their son’s bar mitzvah, it’s important to level set expectations.

Rutledge arranged for her son to take a class in ethics, and then he organized a fundraiser for a boys’ soccer team in Costa Rica, wrote an essay with his speech therapist, and more. “Then we had a party and celebrated him.” Now she has developed a program for others in four parts: community service and volunteering; fundraising; organizing a party; and writing an essay of thanks to parents and others in their life. The party: a backyard BBQ with hotdogs and not dogs.

An all-important aspect of the Ethical Teen is a series of value-based questions that get increasingly more thought-provoking. From “Tacos or burritos?” to “Would you rather be rich or smart?” they coax the teens to articulate their values and seek healthy role models. “Who do white boys have to look up to? Andrew Tate? Some gamer playing Minecraft?” asks Rutledge. “It’s crucial for them to find older people who they can trust who aren’t just their parents.”

Essentially, being anti-entitled is about understanding your core values and connecting with others through them. “Living a life without mindful awareness of your values is like sailing a ship without a rudder,” says Dr. Napolitano, who also incorporates her Buddhist practice into her work. “Really so much depression stems from a sense of isolation. We are all interconnected; separateness is an illusion.” This is a core belief that has no price tag. “The values of being connected and sincerely giving back cuts across all economic groups,” says Miller.

And this is where our city can be the best medicine. Economic diversity is right outside your door. Just a short subway ride will take you to Queens, where you can go to a Venezuelan restaurant serving authentic arepas from our newest hard-working immigrants. One parent watched her teen son transform from brat to benevolent after (as a punishment) she signed him up to volunteer at a food pantry. “He was hanging out with these awful bros, being a little shit, until he saw how other people live, and realized how little he knew of the world.” The bottom line is, teach your child to keep their hearts and minds open. Lead by example with your own generosity.

And just give them a scone and be done with it.

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