In the comic strip “Peanuts,” Lucy van Pelt referred to the beginning of the new year as “post-Christmas letdown,” when you mourn for the gifts you wanted but didn’t get. It’s also the season when I get questions from parents asking me if they’re spoiling their kids. Though post-Christmas letdown can be real for some, it also makes perfect sense to shower your child with attention and affection.
The problem doesn’t stem from too much love or too many presents. It lies in not allowing the child to experience the consequences of his actions and choices. Let’s say your daughter carelessly breaks an expensive gift. Do you immediately replace it, or do you let her experience the disappointment and frustration that goes along with doing a dumb thing? This is where a lot of parents go wrong; they shield the kids from the consequences of not-so-smart decisions.
A great way to understand human nature is to read biographies. It’s remarkable how many successful people had rotten childhoods. Do children who are emotionally neglected therefore accomplish more in life? Of course not. Plenty of kids raised in loving homes turn out just fine. It boils down to whether kids are permitted to experience the consequences of their choices.
The unpleasant side effects of not giving children consequences often manifest themselves in the teenage years. Child psychologist Gregory Ramey, Ph.D. identifies nine classic characteristics of a spoiled teenager:
- Rarely shows appreciation or says, “Thank you.”
2. Doesn’t seem satisfied with whatever she gets.
3. Asks for things and gets upset if he doesn’t immediately get them.
4. Doesn’t have any family responsibilities.
5. Frequently complains about being treated unfairly.
6. Rarely offers to help someone else.
7. Expects others to accommodate her wants.
8. Rarely compromises or shares with others.
9. Has a “what’s-in-it-for-me” attitude.
In one case study, Ramey details how he sent a spoiled teenager away from his office and proceeded to work with the parents. They had given the teen pretty much everything he wanted, and he developed a sense of entitlement. They were puzzled when he would act up when he didn’t get the latest computer game, phone or whatever. The answer was simple: They taught him that he could cajole, whine, beg and threaten his way to get whatever he wanted.
When this comes up in my office, my first reaction is, “What are you doing to encourage this behavior?” If a child is acting entitled, then we must have done something to encourage that attitude. It might feel like we’re victims because we’re getting the opposite of what we intended (“I work hard to give him everything he wants, and all I get in return is ingratitude!”), but good intentions don’t always lead to good results. The parents helped create this situation, and only they can reverse it.
People (not just teenagers) who feel entitled are not just obnoxious or selfish. In fact, they’re quite sad. They aren’t prepared for a world where nobody’s going to provide for them simply because they demand it. In today’s entitled society, more and more young people are returning home in their late 20s or 30s. They weren’t prepared for reality, so they limp back to mom and dad with a sense of failure masquerading as arrogance and anger.
It’s a loving thing to shower your child with affection. But it’s also a loving thing to allow him to feel the consequences of his choices. It’s OK for her to fall on her face, but give her the chance to get up on her own, and applaud her when she does. Life and love are about helping, but just as often they’re about self-reliance and leaving people alone to fend for themselves. Let someone you love stand on his or her own, and you’ll transform their sad sense of entitlement into real-world independence.
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