Stop Fretting about Kids’ Entitlement and Worry about Your Own
In a recent column, I explored the attitude of entitlement many parents are surprised to find in their children. The race for tickets to next week’s Justin Bieber concert in Mumbai had brought it to the fore, and teen entitlement was all any parent was talking about.
But there’s another, very important side to the story that didn’t fit into that first column. An entitlement mentality in a child doesn’t develop in a vacuum. While the outside world does, of course, influence our children, we influence them more. And we often unwittingly model entitled behaviour in two ways: in what our children see us doing for them, and what our children see us doing for ourselves. And this behaviour speaks more loudly to children than anything we tell them to do.
At a child’s birthday party recently, I witnessed a parent snatch a balloon from the hands of a 7-year-old in order to placate his 3-year-old son. When the older child understandably resisted, the parent responded, “My son is younger than you and, if he wants the balloon, he must get it.” When the 7-year-old protested the unfairness, the parent walked off, nearly screaming about how he would do anything for his child’s happiness. As I was watched this, alarm bells sounded in my head on behalf of the watching and now-satisfied 3-year-old.
Our children are often our blind spots and our biggest insecurities. We want to do right by them – not just satisfy their basic needs, but give them a better life than we had. But sometimes that comes at a cost. We may be able to parse our responses, if we take a moment to self-reflect, to know that our instant gratification of our kid’s demands was borne of a moment of weakness, a desire for peace and quiet, perhaps. But all our children see is our immediate acquiescence, our snatching of a balloon away from another, because our children wanted it.
When this becomes a habit for us, it becomes an expectation for our children. And what is that but a sense of entitlement?
We compound these seeds of entitlement by boasting about what we have provided – the latest smartphone, the most expensive school; this can lead to an inflated sense of self-esteem in both the child and the adult. And by telling our children things like, “You are my child; no teacher can tell you how to behave.” In small but powerful ways like these, our children internalize the message that they are deserving of better things than others, of special treatment.
But our children also observe what we do for ourselves.
When we choose to book a holiday, say, or buy a new car, just because a friend did it, we are communicating not only our insecurity, but also that it’s okay to satisfy our desires at any time, without consideration of values, or sometimes even financial liability. Kids pick up on this more than we think; a 14-year-old put it clearly to me a few weeks ago: “How mum can just buy an expensive bag, because her sister got it, and can’t I have tickets to the [Justin Bieber] concert when all my friends are going for it.”
When our conversations rate others by their foreign holidays taken, outdated gadgets or even intelligence, it communicates a hierarchy of personal value. Children begin to question other children who take holidays domestically, who don’t wear designer clothes. (A 20-year-old client recently recounted how her 6-year-old relative who had just received the latest smartphone had ridiculed his older model.) Keeping up with the Kumars becomes a family effort, and switches focus from our own and our family’s unique needs to external facades of materialistic pleasures. This equation of personal worth and materialistic goods feeds into entitlement. ‘I have, therefore I deserve.’
The idea of privilege being earned is taking a beating, and as uncomfortable as it is to admit, we parents are often in the front, swinging the sticks. We can talk all we want about hard work, effort, and healthy boundaries – but if our kids don’t see us living them, all of them, it won’t have much effect.
It’s time for us to do some soul searching and ask ourselves: Is our obsession with keeping our children (and ourselves) happy having the effect we want? And if not, is there a better way?
I say there is a better way. Living with an attitude of gratitude communicates the exact opposite of entitlement and acts as a deterrent. It’s about the smaller, but more powerful acts: saying thank you, apologizing when we inconvenience others, asking or earning instead of taking, treating our domestic help with respect.
Simple rituals, too, like saying a thank-you prayer (to the ether, if you’re not religious), discussing what went well in our day, or using a family kindness, can also help instill a sense of gratitude in kids and reawaken our own.
And better yet — research shows a feeling of gratitude actually contributes most to that happiness we’ve been searching for.