“I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it” blasts on your car radio as Ariana Grande summarizes your child’s interactions with you at the store that very morning. Sometimes it is so hard to say no, especially when your kid is screaming and face-down in the aisle, drawing the glaring eyes of everyone within a 50-foot radius.
I was once that child who could always anticipate getting exactly what I wanted. And now as an adult, I still see the unhappy parts of me I am trying to root out that I can trace back to feeling entitled as a child and teenager. And so, I have had regular thoughts and questions about how to support children in a way that helps them grow up to be responsible, mature, contributing adults in society. Though it is sometimes more convenient to give in to tantrums when children are young, enabling “entitlement” behavior may build patterns that can continue into their teen years and beyond.
Experts say that transitioning your children from entitlement starts simply with one thing: “Stop doing things for your children that they can do themselves.” This seems to go against our human propensity to help and serve those we love. But by doing everything for our kids, we inadvertently hinder their ability to help themselves. To guard against developing these kinds of patterns, here are a few things parents sometimes do to inadvertently encourage entitlement without even realizing it.
Saying “Yes” to everything.
Saying “yes” to your child is not an indicator that you are doing something wrong. In fact, saying yes to the reasonable requests your children make can mark a healthy parent-child relationship, as well as express warmth and security. Often, however, the problems start to arise when parents say yes when they know it is in their child’s best interest if they said no instead—despite the child’s distress or retaliation triggered by this dreaded two-letter word.
With a little creativity, you can still say no without actually using the word. In fact, Audrey Ricker, best-selling author and child psychologist, says that children can become desensitized to the word “no” if they hear it too often, so a better way is to use “short, concise phrases that explain why your [children] should not do something.” These short phrases take on a number of forms. With older children who want to spend all their money on candy or push their way into line, you might say, “Save your money for something more lasting,” or “Wait your turn since these other children arrived first.”
With younger kids, this same technique can look more like calling on imagination by saying something like, “You want Skittles before dinner? Okay, here’s one million imaginary Skittles!” Other examples include using humor or applying related experiences of favorite movie or book characters to help your children reconsider their desires, eases the tension so they know they are not in trouble, and help them see that you hear them and are not dismissing their wants or needs.
Finding a quiet environment where you can allow time for them to calm down is a good approach when your child is in full-blown tantrum mode. Then following up by asking them to talk to you in a way that you can understand their needs better helps you solve problems together. In this way, your kids learn essential communication skills and emotional regulation, which are both necessary for successful relationships and problem solving throughout their lives.
Setting a poor example of a willingness to wait.
Modern society seems to instill the value of instant gratification. Before they can even walk, children are aware of smartphones, fast food, and online shopping that all deliver instant gratification. Adults may inadvertently model these attitudes of expecting quick results. By leaving your phone in the other room at times, taking the time to be relaxed and enjoy family activities, or being willing to spend time in conversation after dinner, for example, show your willingness to acknowledge that good things take time and are worth the effort.
The famous “Marshmallow Test” experiment by Walter Mischel, found that children who could delay gratification did better in life. He gave applicable advice for parents, recommending they model the use of “if-then” plans. For example, parents could decide: “If it’s before noon, I won’t check email” or “If I feel angry, I will count backward from 10.” Helping children develop and practice these plans can allow them time to respond rationally and with self-control to their daily demands and desires. Teaching them these simple ways of delaying gratification can help them find greater ways to learn self-control as well as to show restraint when their “wants” clamor for attention they do not need.
Not allowing life to help them learn some things the hard way.
One way that entitlement can express itself is through laziness or regular procrastination. Older children or teens may avoid doing challenging or unpleasant tasks, like cleaning their room or doing a full load of dishes. But when parents support these attitudes or let their children off the hook when they complain or whine about a household chore, no one wins.
No doubt, it sometimes feels more like mercy to go ahead and do those dishes since your teen has homework and tests. However, this choice may ignore their need to learn time management and find joy in contributing to the good of the family. In short, encouraging high and reasonable standards lifts them to new capabilities and provides ample support for the wisdom of choosing to “stop doing things for your children that they can do themselves.”
Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success speaks of the term snowplow parenting. She uses this metaphor to discuss how some parents spend time removing all obstacles that could enter the path of their children, resulting in long-term negative consequences for these children and teens. Lythcott-Haims comments that in snowplowing, “you have manufactured a role for yourself of always being there to handle things for your child, so it gets worse because your young adult is ill-equipped to manage the basic tasks of life.”
Assigning reasonable responsibilities to your kids and being okay with the learning curve that comes with letting them take care of things can go far in changing the pattern of entitlement in the home. Instead of criticizing them or holding their hand through the entire learning process of handling their own responsibilities, they offer praise for their efforts and encourage their self-sufficiency. Eventually, by creating a space for your children to accomplish tasks on their own, they have more opportunities to feel a sense of self-efficacy and can do more for themselves and for others in ever-expanding ways.
Having few boundaries in place.
Boundaries are key in establishing your role as a parent and your children’s roles within the family. Entitlement finds little room to exert itself in a home with clear boundaries between roles. Your fundamental role as a parent is to lead, protect, and nurture your children so that they can grow to be responsible adults. Theirs is to express their needs but to find a way to live up to the reasonable expectations of the family to maintain a peaceful and harmonious home. Problems develop in homes when there is a lack of boundaries, and kids think that they are in charge. Friendly reminders can help them see that they don’t have the right to “boss you around” when they need something.
Setting reasonable and flexible boundaries involves discussing them. Being in charge doesn’t mean you have to make all the decisions; it’s healthy to include your children in the decision making process and share your reasons for putting them into place. These clear boundaries help establish the order of the home and encourage children to grow in an environment that teaches them to respect authority, engage in collaborative decision making, and support the people they love most.
While children will likely revolt at times against these boundaries, and it may be tempting to fall back into entitlement-granting habits, remember that you are the parent and that changing how you respond to your children’s entitlement could ultimately ameliorate the trajectory of their lives and encourage them to be more self-reliant.
Self-discipline, self-control, and self-reliance thrive in homes where children recognize their opportunities to contribute rather than expect that life entitles them. In fact, this kind of healthy reliance has been shown to increase self-esteem and confidence in your child’s abilities as well as foster a change in thinking more about others rather than just focusing merely on themselves.
Hopefully, by considering these principles and with some patience and coaching, your next trip to the store will end in actually enjoying what you hear on the radio, rather than worrying about how you might be unintentionally creating the world’s next big diva.