All Kidding Aside

Is a generation of busy, booming entrepreneurs spawning the next generation of messed-up kids?
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the February 2001 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

You just made the down payment on your dream home, and the three-car garage glistens with shiny new European imports. You've paid off all your high-interest debt. Your bedroom community is clean and safe, and your business is growing.

Everything's great, right? Your toddler's on the waiting list for the top preschool in the state. Your 12-year-old daughter gets regular manicures, pedicures and facials. You're working weekends and you missed your teenage son's last two basketball tournaments, but you'll buy him a faster PC to make up for it.

Everything's great, right? Well, maybe not everything. Yes, thanks in large part to entrepreneurs, the number of families with a net worth of at least $5 million more than doubled during the '90s, and those worth $10 million or more quadrupled. And while entrepreneurs are spending more money on their kids, they're spending less time with them and burdening them with outrageous expectations. In turn, the children of America's new rich are growing up with low self-esteem, lack of motivation and depression-to name just a few symptoms. In fact, there's even a term for this fast-spreading epidemic: affluenza.

"Self-made millionaires really need to pay attention to what values they're passing on to their children," says Kathy Marshack, a psychologist and family business consultant in Vancouver, Washington, and author of Entrepreneurial Couples: Making it Work at Work and at Home (Davies/Black). "Frequently, children who grow up in wealthy families feel they're worth less because their family says 'Your value is how much money you earn.' Children don't earn money, and they feel insignificant."

Many guilty parents try to make up for their deficiencies by purchasing extravagant gifts, which only exacerbates the problem. Not only are the kids' real needs not being met, but they also learn to equate material possessions with self-worth and are unable to differentiate between want and need. What can parents do? "We say no a lot," says Sheri Brooks, 35, co-founder with husband Gary, 38, of eMailDirect, a digital direct marketing company. The couple has two daughters: Montana, 11, and Billie Jo, 5 months. "I know Montana has more than most kids," says Sheri. "We don't want her to think everything's just going to be handed to her."

The Brookses spent 15 years enduring the peaks and valleys of entrepreneurship before eMailDirect took off in 1997. Now, the family lives in a $2 million Italian villa in Southern California. "Montana's seen a lot of changes recently," says Sheri. "She's run the whole gamut-from living at Gary's mom's house four years ago to moving into a mansion. She knows what it's like not to have anything, so that puts things in perspective for her."

Maintaining perspective is also important for the parents. "The kids of entrepreneurs get neglected a lot," says Marshack. "It's sometimes hard to remember them when you have contracts to write and phone calls to make. But if parents don't pay attention to their kids, the kids assume they aren't of much value."

Many parents pay nannies or sitters to take care of their children, while others simply turn the job over to electronic devices. Just as video games and TV sets raised the latchkey kids of the '80s, computers have become the new surrogates of choice. "The Internet is great, but it shouldn't take over," says Sara Lewis, 46, site director of Pasadena, California-based, an online resource site for parents with children under 7. "Computers give immediate one-to-one feedback, but it's not part of a social setting. If kids are getting babysat by the computer or TV, they're missing out on vital human interaction."

As a mother of two (Matthew, 4, and Lily, 4 months), Lewis makes sure her kids spend more time with people than machines. "Why does my son need a computer or a TV in his room?" she says. "Socialization is more important. We read together or go out to a museum. He's not trapped inside watching television all day."

Lewis enjoys working from home because it allows her to spend more time with her children. But many office-based entrepreneurs aren't interacting enough with their kids because they didn't anticipate the effect children would have on everyday life. "If you add a complex piece like a child, you have to readjust all the other pieces of your life to make it work," says Marshack. "Some entrepreneurs don't realize that. You can't keep running the business full speed and expect to just plug the kid in somewhere."

The irony is that while wealthy parents are having trouble fitting children into their busy schedules, they seem to have no problem heaping outrageous expectations on them. "Your kids might not be capable [of] or even want to do the same things you're doing," says Sheri Brooks. "You don't want to pressure them to the point where they resent you.

To a certain degree, you have to let them do their own thing." Marshack agrees. "There has to be room for independent action," she says. "If not, you're going to see a whole generation of kids with ADD and depression, who regret not having a childhood. You can hire the nanny, you can put them in private schools, but how are you going to feel years from now when you're alienated from your kids?"

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