How to Avoid the Parenting Entitlement Trap
Why raising happy kids isn’t enough.
A boy and his father were sitting in my office trying to solve a problem. "He loses his temper so easily," Dad told me. "The other day, he was messing around with my phone and I needed to make a call. I reached for my phone and he snatched it away. When I finally grabbed it, he lost his temper and all of a sudden, he was yelling at me, 'Give me the phone!'"
His son, who was 10 years old, looked embarrassed and uncomfortable. I smiled gently and asked him, "What was going on for you?"
The boy—who is a bright, personable kid—gazed down at his knees. When he looked up at me, he looked stumped. "I don’t know," he said softly. When I looked at Dad, he just shook his head. "I don’t know, either," he said. "But I wish it would stop."
I think perhaps I know. It’s a problem I see a lot of these days. It’s called "entitlement," the sense that you should have everything you want right when you want it and that you should never have to do things you don’t want to do. Many of the children and teenagers I talk to feel entitled; it’s not an attractive quality and it creates lots of conflict. But no one seems to understand why it’s happening to so many nice kids with parents who love them so much.
Children, like all of us, learn from experience. In fact, it is experience and the beliefs we form about our experiences that wire the human brain, especially in the early years of life. Children are gifted observers; they notice everything around them. They make decisions about what works in their family to get them what they need, things like food, nurturing, and comfort. They depend on parents to teach them how the world works.
Here’s the problem: Too many parents want nothing more than for their children to be happy. Doesn’t sound bad, does it? But parents sometimes believe their job is to make their children happy. If they’re doing their job as parents well, this logic tells them, their children will be happy. What’s more, they will always like their parents. Family life will be peaceful and, well, happy.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way. Happiness, as most adults have learned, is often a temporary situation, punctuated by periods of disappointment, frustration, and failure. I know—those are dirty words. Parents often believe that their job is to eliminate the disappointments and frustrations of life, so they provide outings and toys and praise. They offer rewards (otherwise known as bribes) for tasks children should be willing to do just to help out. As a result, children form the belief that a) they should always be happy, b) they should always get what they want, and c) parents can be manipulated by tears, demands, and temper tantrums. The sad part, at least from my point of view, is that these children are so often correct.
What can parents do to avoid the entitlement trap?
Learn to say "no" with both kindness and firmness. A child usually knows what she wants, but it is a parent’s job to know what she needs. If you want your child to be willing to work hard for something and to be able to wait patiently for it, there is no time like now to let her practice. Yes, she might cry if she feels disappointed, which leads directly to the following.
Let your child have her own feelings. Resilience—the ability to deal with failure and frustration—is a valuable aspect of character. Resilience develops only when a child learns to manage challenging emotions. If you rescue your child and attempt to ensure her happiness, she will expect always to be happy—and will expect the world to take care of her. Give your child accurate words for her feelings, let her know you understand, and then step back. Crying is not fatal.
Teach skills. Children feel more capable and motivated when they know how to do things. Invite your child to work alongside you and teach her to do tasks for herself. Yes, kids are often messy and inefficient, but childhood is a marvelous laboratory for life skills. Next time you consider "helping" your child, ask yourself if she might be able to do the job herself. If the answer is "yes," teach her the skills, supervise well, and let go.
No one is happy all the time. Have faith in your child’s ability to manage life with your encouragement and love. Set yourselves free from the entitlement trap.
Cheryl Erwin is the co-author of several books in the bestselling “Positive Discipline” series, including "Positive Discipline: the First Three Years" and "Positive Discipline for Preschoolers." She is a marriage and family therapist and parent coach, and a sought-after international speaker and trainer. You can learn more about her work at www.cherylerwin.com.