Let’s not spread ‘affluenza’ this season

It turns out that  Ethan Couch, the ‘affluenza’ kid (who was too privileged to know right from wrong) just might be spending some potentially character building time in a U.S. jail.

Although I think (or dare to hope) the Mexican jail time will be far more instructive.

I am also cheered to see that his mindless excuse for a egg donor (never call her a ‘mother’) is spending some time in the can, too.

There are few things that I am conservative about. However, parenting (or the lack-thereof) sends me over to the right so quick that it makes John Birchers look like Communists.

No, I haven’t ever been a parent. I have been a baby sitter, a children’s therapist, and have spent most of each work day working one to one with troubled children.

I’ve been a youth director, and I’ve had some special kids in my life that I hope I’ve motivated and helped train for the good. I’ve spent significant time with kids trying to undo what parents did (and didn’t do.)

But, no, I’ve never given birth, fostered or adopted. And, for some, because I have not had the 24-7-365 experience, this means I’m not qualified to have an opinion about their shortcomings.

Still, I have an opinion. One that is sometimes pretty offensive to those who think that that living (co-existing?) with little humans or pushing them out of their bodies gives them a special wisdom that childless adults do not have.

Recently, as I had breakfast in a favorite family restaurant, I watched another epic parenting ‘fail.’

The ‘family’ consisted of a boy and girl, both under 6. They screamed, jumped, loudly refused to do what their grandparents told them to do. They refused to eat their brightly colored, sugary cereal. They looked at me and others to get smiles for their ‘cute’ behavior.

The grandparents screamed, threatened, bribed, then growled loud warnings which the children ignored. The adults were doing the same thing with each other.

I moved away from them to a table where I thought I might be able to enjoy my meal in peace. Still, their disobedient uproar could be heard all over the establishment. I am sure that I wasn’t the only one relieved when the party took their dysfunction elsewhere.

I wondered how grandparents could allow their charges to be so unruly. These were little kids. If they were this undisciplined now, what would they be like in ten years?

It was then that I realized something big–you cannot teach what you do not know.

Parenting classes just confuse such types. They get lots of new vocabulary and a smattering of technique, but miss out on appropriate application.  To apply good child training requires self-control, personal insight, common sense and adult willingness to be accountable.

The role of a parent is several-fold. To teach by word and and example, and most importantly, to prepare that child (or children) to be functional adults. But what if the teacher is not themselves a functional adult? How can they teach what they do not know?

Now, most of what I am talking about, I learned as an adult. I didn’t have the type of parenting that led me to be a healthy, responsible adult. Most of the principles I later used working with kids came from watching Andy Taylor re-runs and using common sense as circumstances presented themselves.

Having some very harsh consequences as an adult effectively ‘re-parented’ me and made me the adult that I am today.  I had to learn that being held accountable for my actions spoke love. I had to lose a lot in my life before I was willing to step up and act like a mature adult.


Growing up, I had no message of accountability. I  was spoiled financially, but starved in all the ways that mattered. I had to learn the hard way that the adult world is not very forgiving to an adult spoiled brat.

From what I’ve read about the family, Mr. Couch’s parents have a criminal history that says they’re not good at being accountable or kind to others. This had to be instructive to Ethan, but certainly not in a way that would be good for him or anyone else.

Apparently Ethan’s mother thinks its okay to flee the country with her son so that he doesn’t have to face responsibility for his actions.  She was willing to support his lawyer’s ludicrous defense that Ethan’s privilege shielded him from knowing right from wrong–something which I believe is innate in all of us, regardless of how much money we have.

Despite his woeful lack of parenting, this recent time in jail may be the making of Ethan Couch. Big consequences can change character.

There came a time for me, that being on the parental (or family) payroll was not worth the price I had to pay. Having lots of pretty things, not having to look at price-tags and being casual about other adult responsibilities was no longer worth the price of no self respect.

I had to be able to like who I saw in the mirror. All the goodies that flowed down a river of parental largess were no longer worth it. Being immature and unaccountable for me, finally was akin to not being fully alive.

Being homeless in 2007 was part of a consequence that started getting me un-stuck in life. In the therapy world, we used to call it the ‘law of emotional inertia.’

Based on the scientific principle, it simply means that a person stuck in a problem behavior will continue to stay stuck until big enough consequences move them forward.

Sometimes those consequences never come. Let us hope that what is going on now for Mr. Couch is sufficient.

Parents, caregivers, let’s not spread ‘affluenza’ this season. Even if you are as broke as the proverbial church mice, it is possible to spread this malady.

It is spread when you teach by actions that your words and warnings are somehow laughable, and to be ignored. When you threaten repeatedly but never follow through. When you yell or hit rather than teach.

I wonder if the grandparents in the restaurant thought to ‘practice’ going out to dinner with their little ones. To show them how to act before.

To not proceed on the principle of (I’ve actually heard a parent say this) “I’m not going to tell them anything, if we go out and they act up, I’ll just tear them up later.”

Such behavior teaches only that adults are out of control. Is that the lesson that we want to provide?

I wonder if the grandparents thought to ignore the children not eating their food. Then, when the kids wanted more, saying a simple, quiet, firm ‘no.’ And then, leaving if a tantrum started.

It might mean the adults not finishing their own breakfast, but it would have taught a very valuable lesson. If you act inappropriately in public, you miss out on good things.

Another thought, once home,  require the children to earn the privilege of going out with their grandparents again. Such outings should be privileges, not just things the kids expect they will get to do.

What is ‘cute’ or worthy of an exasperated eye roll at age 5 is not going to be nearly as cute at age 15 when parents or grandparents are dealing with the juvenile justice officer. Kiddie drama might seem funny at a young age. I guarantee you that adolescent troubles are much less so.

It may be that Ethan Couch and his mother are beyond help. I don’t believe that. Ethan, if he is placed in a structured (maybe even boot-camp) environment might have a chance.

Deep down, he knows right from wrong. So does his mother.

Maybe some boot camp time would be good for her too.