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attitude of entitlement

Blackmail for Justin Bieber Tickets: A Study in Teen Entitlement

Justin Bieber’s The Purpose World Tour is coming to India – Mumbai, to be precise, for a one-night performance – on 10 May, and it has caused quite the stir among the city’s preteens and teens – and their parents. Many of my clients are feeling exasperated at teenage manipulation tactics, blackmailing or temper-tantrums, and a general attitude of entitlement. These parents are all grappling with whether or not to acquiesce to kids’ demands, and grappling with their helplessness, frustration, anger and guilt when their answer is “No.”

Complicating what might be a typical rite of passage in raising an adolescent are the exorbitant ticket prices and the rarity with which Western pop stars pass through India. But this issue is not a one-off, even if a (pre)teen’s attitude of entitlement makes it seem so; similar conflicts are often triggered when it comes to buying the latest smartphone, taking foreign holidays, hosting fancy, themed parties, or buying expensive, branded clothing and accessories.

These conflicts put parents and children at odds, yes, but they also put two fundamentals of parenting at odds: the need to set healthy boundaries for children and our desire to give them the best of everything.

An attitude of entitlement starts long before the teen years

An overwhelming body of research shows children thrive when parents set healthy boundaries for children. Research by Diana Baumrind tells us that an authoritative parenting style – one where the parent sets reasonable boundaries and standards for a child and offers a high level of emotional engagement and support — is the ideal parenting style. These consistent limits and emotional support provide a stable foundation from which a child has the freedom to express and explore.

Yet, we struggle to set these boundaries, and to enforce them consistently. I wonder if part of the reason is a kind of vicarious overcompensation for our own unmet needs; a client once mentioned “I hated my mother, as she was strict; I don’t want to be that parent for our child.” Or, it may stem from a fear that we will not be liked if we set limits on our children’s activities and behaviour. Regardless, we need to use these moments to ask ourselves: How important is our desire to be constantly liked or appreciated by our children? Are we making this decision for us or for them?

It may also stem from the sheer business of modern life. I often hear parents say that when they come home, exhausted from work, the last thing they want to do is argue with a 5-year-old over not touching the iPad or playing a game while eating food. And so, we cave on simpler issues, like not brushing teeth every day, or completing homework. We tell ourselves we’re being kind to the child. In fact, these moments of capitulation are creating a precedent, which trickles to other areas of child’s life. Perhaps what we’re really doing is being kind to ourselves.

Regardless of our motives, our attempts to constantly keep children happy are eating into children’s ability to adjust, accommodate and even learn to live with delayed gratification. As Dr. Robert Berman, author of the book, Permission to Parent, writes, parents often take on the role of human pacifiers, who are always ready to intervene, fix a situation, the moment child is unhappy – but, he continues, “in order to have happy kids, you must teach them to tolerate being unhappy.” Not in a cruel way, that denies actual needs, but in a way that helps them learn to regulate their emotions and understand the perks of being patient for things they want.

Permissive parenting can make us likable in the short run, but children lose out on the benefits of boundaries. And over time, that permissiveness can foster an attitude of entitlement that prompts kids not to ask for, but to demand, whine for, manipulate for, blackmail for, among other things, Justin Bieber tickets. This entitlement is rooted in a narcissism that parents have directly (if often inadvertently) fostered. According to research co-led by psychologist Brad Bushman at Ohio State University, parental attitudes decide how narcissistic children become. If parents see their child as being more deserving, better than others, or special – a perspective not necessarily communicated explicitly – then it can be a slippery path as the child begins to perceive others as being inferior to him/herself, and hence develop greater entitlement.

Bushman says the first signs of this narcissism can begin around eight years of age, so boundary setting ideally starts early. But if you’re a parent alarmed by an entitled teenage attitude or your (pre)teen’s behaviour toward obtaining Justin Bieber tickets, it might be better late than never. Tough love is all about being warm and communicating from a space of respect and empathy for the child – while still drawing the line.

Some parents I’ve met with have been able to do this through a conversation about the difference between a need and a want. A friend’s 14-year-old daughter told me recently that it’s not that she didn’t want to go to the concert, but when her mother spoke to her about the concert venue (too far) and ticket prices (too expensive), she realized the concert was not a need, but something she just wanted. Isn’t this a powerful narrative?

Raising kids in an entitled world is hard. But as the character Sabrina Fairchild says in the movie Sabrina, “More isn’t always better; sometimes it’s just more.” It’s a good lesson for kids – but they can only learn it if we learn it first.

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