Increasingly, I hear parents and grandparents talk about an entitlement mentality in their grown children. This mentality manifests in many different ways. Sometimes it’s righteous and angry, but more often it’s simply a quiet expectation. “I can’t do this. You’ll do it for me, won’t you?”
Some people have written and asked me for ideas on how to instill a different kind of idea in children while they’re younger.
A few suggestions:
# 1 — When, as a parent, you find yourself thinking, “No child of mine is going to … ” tell yourself, “Stop it!” right there. This attitude gets many parents into trouble, and down the line both parents and grown child will pay. The more you act on the premise, “My child must have what I didn’t have,” the more you’ll do things that your child could perhaps be doing for him- or herself. While not all of these things you want to do for your child are necessarily wrong, it’s always wrong to act on this line of thinking, because it will lead you down the wrong path, almost for sure.
# 2 — Instead of rushing to solve problems for your child, spend the time asking questions in hopes he or she can figure it out for him- or herself. This applies to practical everyday problems, as well as more complex dilemmas (complex, at least, for the child).
# 3 — Don’t view your child as an extension of yourself. View your child as a fully separate human being — granted, one less developed than an adult, but still an individual just the same.
# 4 — Don’t take your child’s actions personally, and don’t see them necessarily as a reflection on you. Parents who have two or more children almost always find that their children have different personalities, different quirks, and make different kinds of choices in various situations. Right here, this proves that not everything a child does is due to the parent. If a parent treats these two or more children basically the same way, and the children respond very differently, this shows the power of individual choice and personality, even in childhood or adolescence.
# 5 — Don’t waste your time and mental energy thinking your child should feel grateful for all you do. “Grateful” implies an understanding of what adult life is like. Children don’t grasp adult life yet. Only you — alongside life itself– can teach them. The only way to teach them is to hold them accountable for using their own minds — to the best of their ability — and providing logical consequences for their actions whenever possible. (Rational parents I know report good results with the “Love and Logic” method; see loveandlogic.com)
# 6 — Don’t preach to your kids. It will lead them to glaze over in confusion, and with good reason. Human minds respond to reason, facts and logic — even when they’re younger. Instead of lecturing, point out “if-then” relationships whenever possible. Ideally, your child should come out of the childhood experience with a strong sense of logic and reason integrated with emotional self-acceptance. If you do everything in your power to convey this to your child, then you’ve done your job. The rest will be up to him or her, in young adulthood and beyond.
# 7 — There’s nothing wrong with your child falling flat on his or her face, metaphorically speaking. If you provide a continuous, unconditional safety net throughout the first 18 to 25 years of life, what do you expect to happen, in all honesty? No, you’d never be negligent and let your young child be harmed physically. But life is full of upsets, mistakes and disappointments. This is how we all learn. Disappointment is OK — even good. Don’t try to anticipate and meet every single one of your child’s wants and needs. Without wants and needs, we have nothing to strive for. If your child comes into young adulthood not having had the experience of yearning for something and striving to get it, then you have no business being surprised when he or she looks at you and says, “Well? Where’s my new car?” or whatever the entitlement object is.
# 8 — Don’t tell your child he or she is good “just because you’re you.” This is asinine. In some kids, this will foster narcissism. They’ll grow up not with rational self-interest (a good thing), but with a sense that they are the equivalent of the prince, the king or the queen. They’ll carry this expectation around with them in life. Instead, try to instill a sense that, “You have a mind, you can think, you can look at facts, confront them, face them, make reasonable conclusions about them, and learn from your mistakes.” This is what it means to teach a child how to think. Remember that self-esteem involves a confidence that one is capable of and fit for existence. The way we develop a sense of feeling fit for existence is confidence in the use of our minds. Confidence, at root, comes from knowing how to think.
# 9 — Teach your child boundaries. For example, teach your child that he’s not obliged to share with others, just because they want or demand it. Equally emphasize that the other child is not obliged to share either, just because he wants or feels he needs it. Childhood is riddled with property rights issues, not in the literal legal sense, but in the sense of forming rational social relationships with other people. This will have massive consequences not only for human society as a whole later on, but also for all of the child’s eventual business and personal relationships. Boundaries matter, and they’re a two-way street. You’re entitled to what’s yours, absolutely — but nothing more, and nothing less.
# 10 — Whenever possible, have your child work for something. Require effort. Don’t be lazy. Take the time to encourage your child to think aloud about a problem, or do what seems to you a trivial labor for him- or herself. Don’t be a martyr and say, “I’ll do it for you,” with sighs of resentment. You’re not doing anyone any favors. Learning is a lifelong process, as there are always new things to learn, and new stages of life to confront. Talk to someone lucid in their 90s, and they’ll tell you what they’re still learning. In childhood, it all starts with internalizing a “can do” attitude. “I can think, therefore I will do. And if I make mistakes, I’ll correct myself and improve.” If you struggle with this issue yourself as an adult, fostering it in your child will not only feel meaningful, it will also help you better internalize self-confidence for yourself.
The sense of entitlement we observe in more and more young people rests, at root, on a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. People who feel that they cannot do things for themselves sometimes will go into their shell, with a self-effacing sense of humility and shame. Many others will come out of their shell, but instead of producing for their own sake, they’ll “guilt,” demand or plead that others take care of them — often in extravagant ways. They’ll sometimes do it in manipulative or even hostile ways. But it all stems from the same thing: A lack of self-esteem grounded in the kinds of things I wrote above.
The entitlement mentality is wrong, it’s mistaken and you’re right to feel angry about it. But it’s also an indication of profound emotional vulnerability and weakness. It should never be rewarded or appeased; once you start to do so, you will come to see more and more of it. It’s happening throughout society, right before our very eyes, and it’s getting worse.
No parent has absolute control over how a child turns out. Young adults and adults make their own decisions and ultimately choose their own value systems. But if you help your child exit childhood with a truly rational and strong sense of self-confidence, it’s much less likely he or she will succumb to the entitlement mentality, or anything else irrational and self-defeating.
Entitlement psychology grows where self-esteem and confidence in one’s mind and thinking failed to take root. The antidote is a love of life, and a determination to continually take the self-initiative to live it.
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