Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old from a wealthy Texas family, was recently convicted for killing four people and injuring two others while driving drunk. His sentence: 10 years probation and rehabilitation for a raging case of “affluenza.”
When I first read about how Ethan Couch, a teenager from a very wealthy family, was convicted this December of drunk driving and subsequently killing four people and injuring two others, I was shocked–not by the crime (while horrible) but by the sentencing. Couch’s attorneys determined that the teenage boy suffered from “affluenza” and could not equate his actions with their consequences due to his wealthy upbringing. He got a sentence of 10 years of probation and rehabilitation at an expensive, reportedly spa-like retreat.
Recall, please, that this teenager killed four people and injured two more by drunk driving.
I’m not saying that children should be tried as adults, but the insertion of this “affluenza”–a condition not recognized as an actual, real mental disorder–brings the crime and punishment to a new level of shocking. It just seems incredibly wrong.
Is being incredibly wealthy and privileged–as Couch and his parents definitely are–truly something that could be considered pathological? I don’t believe so–but it does raise the question of who is ultimately responsible in this case. If the teenager was brought up to believe that his actions made no difference, that his wealth bought him the privilege of having no consequences to anything he did, then is he truly to blame for being a killer and a thief? Should his parents be sentenced to jail in his place, or should all three of them suffer severe consequences together, both for his upbringing and his actions in tandem? Well, there are lots of criminals who have pretty terrible upbringings, but I don’t see them all sharing cells with their parents, so I think that’s an unreasonable punishment, too.
At what point does one’s upbringing free a person from consequences that others with different upbringings might suffer for similar crimes? If I grow up never learning to share, I don’t think that means that if I don’t share as an adult that I’m blameless. Teenagers may not be adults, but they are well on their way to becoming them, and I can’t wrap my head around the idea that total affluence and freedom will make one a total feral, blameless psycho. Sure teenagers are kind of psycho in general, but there’s a set bar of humanity I think most should be able to meet, at least in theory, barring actual mental disorders. I was pretty awful to my parents as a teenager, but I knew full-well I was being awful, even as I was being awful.
If one has lets wealth interfere with morals, I don’t think that’s the same thing as suffering an illness that’s not anyone’s fault. Even if you’re a teenager. If crimes should not be blamed on growing up in poverty and being poorly-parented, crimes should not be pinned on growing up wealthy and poorly-parented, either. Ethan Couch was a criminal, and his affluence–affluenza–has served him well, in acting as an expensive get-out-of-jail card. That he never experienced consequences doesn’t seem to me a good enough reason to continue the no-real-consequences tradition in his punishment. A good solid consequence might be long, long overdue.
But putting the Ethan Couches of the world aside, it really makes me think of my own upbringing, and what I wish for any future child I might have someday. I know parents often want their kids to have a life that’s better than the one they had growing up–whether it means more wealth, better education, better religious upbringing, or something else. Personally, I didn’t grow up rich. I grew up lower middle class, and sure, we got Christmas gifts that were sometimes thrifted, and our clothes nearly all were; that was just life. We were lucky to know that while we weren’t necessarily splurging on the Shapes-style Mac-n-Cheese (luxury because there’s a lot less in those boxes that cost more!) we also never worried we weren’t going to eat. I grew up conscious about money and, subsequently, have mild panic attacks about it sometimes. But to be honest, I’m pretty damn thankful for both the frugal upbringing I had and even the panic attacks I have about money. Those moments of panic mean I know the value of it and the hard work it takes to earn it.
Ultimately, when I think back to my childhood and then think ahead to our potential children and what their life might be like in my house, I don’t wish for them to have all brand-new clothes or shoes; I don’t hope we can afford a new or even used car for them when they turn 16;1 I don’t hope they never have to wonder if they can afford something they want or maybe even need (though I hope they never have to worry if their parents can put food on the table).
Growing up without everything being comfortable has its advantages. I can cook. I can budget my money even while I’m fretting over it constantly. I think I gained a level of empathy and a good work ethic. I’m not saying I grew up in poverty, but I think a healthy dose of “we cannot afford that, you need to earn it” does a person good. I saved for over a year to buy an American Girl doll because my parents could not (and would not) spend that much on a doll, no matter how badly I wanted it. I treasured that Kirsten doll, and still have her at my parents’ house. I still remember the day the box arrived in the mail. All those hours spent babysitting some hellions2 and suffering through it paid off. It taught me patience, hard work, and, ultimately, the reward of those things. I’m not saying it made me a Good Person, but having those experiences certainly shaped me into an OK adult. Wearing thrifted knockoff Chuck Taylors did not, in fact, kill me.
Does being rich mean that a child is doomed to a life of brattiness and snobbery and a complete lack of empathy with their fellow human beings?3 I don’t think it has to. I refuse to buy into the idea that affluenza is an unavoidable psychological pitfall that rich kids are all “suffering” innocently at the hands of their parents. They should carry the blame for their actions because, unless proven otherwise, they are just as cognizant as their less wealthy peers.
However, I’ll concede that easy money paired with total freedom might make the well-behaved path a little harder to follow, and parents would do well to be mindful. Something being hard is hardly a good reason to not do it; if you never exercise, your muscles may never ache, because they aren’t really growing and being used properly. No pain, no gain, as they say. A rich kid who never suffers a single consequence certainly must feel good, but that good feeling can be deadly eventually, if not for the kid, then for the people he kills by his drunk driving. If a parent’s job is to raise a child not to simply have an enjoyable, easy childhood but to prepare him or her to be adult citizens, then a little muscle ache might be just what the doctor ordered.
— ∮∮∮ —