That's not the case anymore says the Marin County psychologist, who writes and lectures about a near-epidemic of kids who are hiding serious depression, drug addiction and eating disorders beneath a veneer of achievement and popularity.
An overflow crowd of 550 people flocked to hear Ms. Levine speak at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park on March 26, eager for advice from the author of the book, "The Price of Privilege." They listened with rapt attention to her cautionary tales, and leaned forward, en masse, when she listed off common sense solutions.
The event was sponsored by the Menlo Park City School District PTO Council and the Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation.
Ms. Levine has spent the last year and a half giving weekly lectures based on her book, and almost everywhere she goes, she hears about a suicide in the community, she says. At her recent lecture in Lafayette, the suicide victim was a girl who was a straight-A junior high school student, she says.
"The suicide rate is up 78 percent for adolescent girls, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control)," Ms. Levine told the crowd. "It's scarier because it's much harder to identify."
Parents can't rely anymore on the old checklist of warning signs: poor hygiene, withdrawal from friends, failing grades. And being from an affluent, educated family offers no special protection, Ms. Levine says.
"Upper middle class (children) have the highest rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, psychosomatic disorders. ... I'm not talking about a crabby daughter who rolls her eyes and tells you to go away while she slams her door," she says. "I'm talking about clinical depression."
There isn't much data on the children of the super rich, but there are a lot of studies on children from families who earn between $120,000 and $160,000 a year, and their rates of depression and anxiety disorders are three times higher than other children's, she says.
"Maybe they're kind of spoiled, but surely they have involved parents, so surely they're going to look better (than other kids) — but the trajectory is looking worse," Ms. Levine says, acknowledging that it seems counterintuitive.
From the 4-year-old who bragged to her about learning Chinese, and parroted, "I wanna go to Harvard," to the polite teenage patient whose long sleeves hid the word "Empty" carved into her forearm with a razor blade, Ms. Levine says she's seeing kids who aren't getting what they need from the parents who are trying to give them everything.
The constant pressure to have perfect grades, to get into mom's or dad's Ivy League alma mater, to excel at sports, look good, and be popular — Ms. Levine describes families with a child-centered lifestyle that focuses on the outward trappings of success at the expense of emotional needs.
"If you don't have a workable sense of self, you're never going to do well or feel good about yourself," she says.
Children have to be allowed to develop a sense of self without fear of disappointing their parents, she insists.
"Kids are being pressured in a way that's damaging to everything we know about child development. More and more, it's, 'If you get into the right preschool, then you can get into the right school, and then go to the right high school and get into the right university — or you'll end up with a tin cup on Sand Hill Road.'"
Ms. Levine counseled parents to let go of the notion that their children have to become as wealthy as they are. "They may not do as well as we do financially — so what?"
With the exception of living in poverty, there's no correlation between happiness and wealth, she says. Parents, she adds, need to examine their own beliefs about what a child needs to be successful.
"There is a bill of goods we're being sold, that there are only 15 or 20 schools in America (that are worth going to)," Ms. Levine says. "The best predictor of who will finish college is if the child feels (the college) is a good fit. It doesn't have anything to do with grades."
No child would learn to walk if her parents refused to let her fall down and try again, and no parents would say to a baby, "You fall down one more time and you'll be flipping burgers for the rest of your life!" But while it's easy to let children learn from failures when they are young, parents feel they can't allow older kids to struggle with anything, for fear they'll fall behind, she says.
There's a difference between being intrusive and being overprotective, Ms. Levine notes. Being overprotective can delay a child's development, but intrusive parenting can damage it, she says. Avoiding such damage means resisting the urge to correct your kid's homework or finish up a report when it's midnight and there's a big test the next day. It means not using PowerSchool (a Web site parents use to track their children's performance) to check up on your child's grades every day.
In fact, that's one of the solutions she proffered to the parents crowded onto bleachers and folding chairs in Hillview's multi-use room: Forget about grades.
"Forget about them for a day or a week or forever," she says. "Concentrate on the process. Learning is (about) effort and improvement."
Parents also need to "gut-check" themselves, she says. Are you putting all your emotional needs onto your child because you are depressed or unfulfilled, she asked.
Ms. Levine's other "profoundly simple" solutions include insisting that children get enough sleep — nine hours for teens, 10 hours for youngsters — and eat three meals a day. Also, limit media exposure, assign regular chores, and provide discipline.
Last, but not least: "Pay attention," she says.
"Don't blow off things you don't want to see," Ms. Levine urges. "There's a tremendous amount of denial in affluent communities."
Madeline Levine will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 9, at Gunn High School's Spangenberg Theatre at 780 Arastradero Road in Palo Alto. Admission is free. A pre-event community reception starts at 6:15 p.m. For information, go to www.paloaltopta.org.