A Failed Youth Development Paradigm
This is an Excerpt From Chapter Two of Setting the Bar: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Era of Distraction, Dependency, and Entitlement by Shane Trotter
“No man was ever wise by chance.” –Seneca
At just after 11 p.m. on Saturday, June 15th, 2013, Ethan Couch jumped behind the wheel of his father’s red Ford F-350. His own Harley Davidson package F-150 was in the shop. With seven friends aboard, two who sat exposed in the truck bed, the sixteen-year-old sped down a rural two-lane road at over 70 miles-per-hour.
Further down Burleson Retta Road, Breanna Mitchell’s Mercury Mountaineer sat stalled on the shoulder. Mitchell, a 24-year-old chef at a private club, had been working late and was on her way home when her tire blew and she swerved into a mailbox. The homeowners, Hollie and Eric Boyles, came out to help along with their 21-year-old daughter, Shelby. A fourth helper, Brian Jennings was driving home from his son’s graduation party when he noticed Mitchell’s car and stopped to assist. Eric Boyles grabbed the mailbox and took it to his garage, which is where he was when he heard what sounded like an explosion.
Couch had been showing off by driving on the wrong side of the road. He overcorrected while transitioning back to his lane, slamming his F-350 into Mitchell’s SUV. Gas, burning rubber, torn metal and human bodies littered the road. One Tarrant County Sheriff's deputy recollected the scene looking “more like a plane crash than a car wreck.” Mitchell, Jennings, and Boyles’ wife and daughter were dead before emergency personnel arrived. All seven of Couch’s passengers survived, but Sergio Molina, one of those in the truck bed, was paralyzed and now communicates by blinking.
The investigation revealed that Couch had stolen two cases of beer from a local Wal-Mart about an hour before. His blood-alcohol level was 0.24% (three times the legal limit) and he tested positive for both Valium and marijuana. Couch pled guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault, but his defense team wasn’t lying down. In a move that earned animosity from every corner of the globe, Couch’s lawyers claimed that he couldn’t be held responsible for his behavior because he’d never been held responsible. His parents had fought all of his battles and used their considerable wealth to buffer out any blemishes he acquired along the way.
When Ethan drove himself to school at age 13, the school’s founder, LeVonna Anderson went to discuss her concerns with his father, Fred Couch. Fred threatened to buy the school and, soon after, unenrolled Ethan. At 15, the police found Ethan parked at the Dollar General with a Miller Lite, a bottle of Grey Goose, and a naked 14-year-old girl. When the officer asked Ethan what he was doing, he responded, “What’s it look like I’m doing?” Despite breaking at least six laws, his parents helped finagle the charges down to a minor-in-possession and minor-in-consumption.
As the psychologist who treated his family after the accident, Dr. Dick Miller remarked, rather than the golden rule, Ethan was taught: “We have the gold. We make the rules.” Ethan’s lawyers claimed he was a victim of his upbringing. How could Ethan know there were limits when he’d never been given any? Dr. Miller even came up with a name for Ethan’s condition: “affluenza.”
A media hailstorm ensued. Ethan Couch became the poster child for all that was wrong with the American justice system. A separate set of rules for the wealthy. A get out of jail free card for the privileged. Here was a spoiled young man who’d been running wild without any concept of a line. His utter disregard for the law and human decency wrought destruction in countless lives. Now the court was being asked to continue the trend. They were being asked to reduce his consequences because he had been so sheltered from consequences that he couldn’t have known any better. And they did. Ethan Couch was sentenced to ten years of probation and sent to a beautiful California rehab facility where his parents flew first class to visit him each week.
If you are human, this verdict disgusts you. Your heart aches for the victims and your blood boils when you think about the Couches and their ridiculous legal defense. Yet, the thing is, we all know that, despite its gimmicky name, affluenza is a real phenomenon. Spoiled kids with no limits tend to become entitled narcissists. Parents who fight all their children’s battles and remove consequences tend to create dependent, immature young-adults who have no sense of reality. In this sense, you don’t have to be rich to fall victim to “affluenza.” You just have to be coddled.
This is the problem with our modern youth development paradigm. It promotes treating every child like they are the center of the universe, somehow deserving of our constant adulation and certainly needing us to solve every problem for them. The new norm is to overprovide, overprotect, and to always find the excuse for a child’s behavior. Everyone is responsible, except for the youth.
If he were raised in a different setting, Ethan Couch might have been a great kid. If he was fortunate enough to receive boundaries and consequences he might have grown into a hardworking, productive member of society. Ethan’s environment contributed to his behavior just as any drug-dealer or thief’s environment promotes theirs. Like you, I empathize more with an impoverished thief, yet both simply manifest the way their environment interacts with their biochemistry. When it comes to behavior, nature and nurture are the only two factors at play, and as we can’t very well influence nature, our focus should be on nurture. Ethan Couch was nurtured to be an incredible asshole.
Still, this doesn’t excuse his behavior. In fact, the best thing we could have done for Ethan Couch is to hold him fully accountable. Maturation is fundamental to happiness and the most essential lessons often have to be learned the hard way.
Our goal must be to pull behavior up—to influence the majority towards living better. This is why we have to set standards and focus on behavior regardless of a person’s circumstances. In fact, this is the greatest form of respect: to treat each person as if they are capable of taking responsibility for themselves. When the boundary of ultimate responsibility is blurred, dysfunction follows. It is important to understand people’s backgrounds, meet them where they are, and support them. Yet, prior circumstances can’t be a justification to cut someone off from consequences.
We don’t examine Ethan Couch’s background to excuse his behavior. Rather, it is a useful archetype for helping us recognize the five ingredients of our dysfunctional youth development paradigm.
Low Expectations: Treating youth as perpetual children rather than adults-in-training. As such they are always innocent and never responsible.
Blunted Feedback: Under the guise of kindness, we remove honesty and accountability that would prompt appropriate adaptations.
Victimization: We program youth to interpret every adversity as the consequence of their own unique deficit, thus, justifying their demand that others solve problems for them. They learn to see others as responsible for each problem, rather than themselves.
Deferred Responsibility: Having determined external circumstances are responsible for their challenges, youth learn to expect other people, institutions, and technologies to solve their problems and they quit when circumstances present even a modest challenge.
Empty Values: Youth are fed a materialist culture that prioritizes possessions, pleasure, and outcomes over deeper human needs. Within this cultural value system, giving kids what they want is always seen as the greatest good (unless that conflicts with a parents protective instincts).
We aren’t Tonya and Fred Couch, but modern norms are closer to them than we’d like to think. And these ingredients of dysfunction are not reserved for rich exceptions like Ethan Couch. In fact, wealthy parents can be some of the best at identifying and avoiding these pitfalls. In our affluent modern societies, the ingredients of dysfunction are part of the mainstream culture perpetuated through our media influencers, television shows, and institutions. They have infected our schools where even the least privileged youths fall victim to them.
This has been an excerpt from chapter two of Setting the Bar—available now in paperback, hardback, ebook, and Audible formats.
Ethan, Fred, and Tonya Couch
Mooney, Michael J. “The Worst Parents Ever.” D Magazine, May 2015.