What it's like for kids growing up in the shadow—or bright light—of success
by Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. | December 7, 2015 11:00 am
At 12, Sam was bright and eager but sad, almost clinically so. His mother and father did not fall into that category of wealthy parents we’ve begun to indict for working too much and pressuring their kids to perform. They were encouraging but mindful not to push too hard. They wanted him to be happy—except, of course, he wasn’t. For one thing, Sam had a difficult time making friends. Most of the kids at his Brooklyn school were fairly well-off. But Sam’s family was rich, while his mother, who was constantly making headline news as the CEO of a large tech firm, was as maligned as she was celebrated.
Sam knew from an early age that his mother was sort of famous and that maybe not everyone liked her. But as his parents explained to Sam, the only mom that should matter to Sam was the mom he knew at home. And for a long time, that was the only mom that mattered. Until Brooklyn. Listening to him describe how he’d tried to make friends, start conversations, form connections, I could tell he wasn’t a show-off or boring or desperate and trying too hard. I got the sense that kids disliked him for one reason only: because of who his mother was—or who they thought she was.
Many children who grow up “having it all” find themselves burdened by a notorious surname, being recognized by nearly everyone as “so-and-so’s child.”And when that parent is in the news—observed, scrutinized—so, too, is the child.
Having raised two children whose father garnered a great deal of success early on in his career, I’ve had to address these issues personally. One of the ways that I dealt with my husband’s high profile was to pretend it wasn’t a factor, almost that it didn’t even exist. In a way, this approach worked, and I think it benefited my children as they grew up. There was never the sense, or so I hoped, that fame or money was what our lives revolved around.
But this approach is usually powerless at protecting kids from the words or actions of everyone else. There were times when I suspected my children felt pressure to act a certain way because of who their father was. As many kids do, they felt his successes as well as his disappointments. More than 10 years ago, when my husband lost his job in a very public way, our son took it quite personally. He made the battle his own, feeling intensely betrayed by those who’d done the firing. We tried to be honest and straightforward about what had happened without getting into details, but kids assume their own burdens.
They face them, too. When her parents were divorcing, Natasha, the daughter of a famous fashion designer, was instructed not to read any of the stories. Twelve at the time, she had no intention to—until a classmate handed her a magazine with her mother on the cover. Natasha told me, “The girl said, ‘I just thought you might want to see this.’ I read it and burst into tears. Knowing that everyone at school was aware of my family’s problems was horrible.”
Children of the very successful also often find themselves living in the shadow of their parents. As Natasha said, “I like clothes as much as the next girl, yet it never occurred to me to pursue a career in fashion. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, ‘Why didn’t you go into fashion?’ Everyone thinks of me first as her daughter, instead of who I am.”
In such cases, a child may benefit from distancing herself from the family, especially in those early adolescent years when she’s wont to do that anyway. My son often denied who his father was if people asked too eagerly, and that was fine. Imposing a moratorium on reading news stories about the family is always a good idea, too, at least until you can read them together. And it’s important to run through scenarios so that kids will be prepared for certain situations. For example, if someone asks about something in the papers, the best response is often a casual “I have no idea what my parents do” or “My dad’s great at his job, but I don’t get involved.”Nothing defensive, but it clearly sends the message: I’m my own person.
Most of all—and this counts double for parents of teenagers—don’t discount what they’re feeling or try to explain it away. Don’t say something like, “Stop complaining: This last name pays for Exeter/your trip to Cabo.” Make sure they know that your battles aren’t theirs to fight and, in particular, that their famous name isn’t one to be lived up to or earned. It’s simply the one they have.
Names have been changed to protect clients’ privacy.
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