L.A.'s Private School Debate: How Rich Are the Rich Kids?

rich_poor_illo - THR - H 2017
Illustration by: Rami Niemi

When students worry about wealth disparity at top schools, experts say their parents could be the problem.

Kids are always measuring things. That's part of their learning. Who's fastest? Who's tallest? Who's richest?" says child development specialist Betsy Brown Braun, who runs parenting groups in L.A. and is the author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents. And at schools where the entertainment world's affluent attend classes with the kids of the richest of the rich, concerns about measuring up when it comes to wealth can cause anxiety.

Brown Braun says kids' typical questions include: "Why aren't we going to Hawaii or St. Barts on vacation? Why does so-and-so have a private plane? How come we don't have a theater — or a gym or a chef — in our house?" But queries also can be as mundane as: "Why don't I have an Uber or Postmates account?" Some students use those apps so liberally, says Froma Burack, a psychologist on L.A.'s Westside, "that it's as if nobody pays for them. There's no concept of money."

The excess can get to kids — and prompt them to ask their by-almost-any-other-measure well-off parents, "Mom, Dad, are we poor?" Experts warn parents that they should have a thoughtful approach in mind to avoid reacting in anger to what suddenly can seem like outrageously ungrateful children. "Our reaction to questions like this has a tremendous influence on our kids and what their values become," says Brown Braun. "If you can, buy time and try to explore what's going on by saying, 'Why do you ask?' "

Make it clear that how your family spends its money is the parents' choice. "While a question like this may raise in the parent a feeling of guilt or jealousy or anger, it's important to feel OK about who you are and how you choose to spend your money and have your answer reflect your values," says Brown Braun. "Resist the urge to put down the other person."

And avoid saying that these large expenditures are things you can't afford, even if that's the truth. "We don't want our children to feel less than. [Most] parents who are spending $35,000 a year to send their kid to a private school can pretty much afford a lot of things. So just stick to saying things like, 'You know, different people have different houses; different people spend money differently.' One of the things we should say to kids is, 'We feel so lucky that we are able to provide ourselves with the things we want and feel are important for our family.' " Adds Burack, "Sharing too much about family finances can make kids anxious, and it also gives them too much power."

Sometimes what's really going on is that the kids are picking up on their parents' own role as strivers. Observes one parent who has sent kids to two of the top private schools in L.A.: "If you are raising your kids to value money at 10 years old, then yes, having an elevator in the house is going to be important to them. Honestly, I have never thought of this as the kids' issue. It's always the parents who utilize the social structure of a private school as a playground for themselves. It becomes an issue for them, and they project it on their children."

Surprisingly enough, kids whose parents have uber-fortunes can be uncomfortable with displaying their wealth. Brown Braun recalls a child with whom she worked who didn't want to invite other kids to his house because it was so big. "He felt like it was kind of uncool." And Burack has had teenage patients who ask their parents to return fancy cars they've bought for them for their 16th birthdays. "They are embarrassed. They don't want people to be with them for the wrong reasons. It can make them very uncomfortable."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.