Untangling the Entitlement Trap

How to raise grateful, gracious kids
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Children of all ages are experts in making sure their needs are met. They usually seek out things they need — attention, nourishment, safety and love — from infancy through adulthood. At times though, a child’s natural and normal requests for things can morph into outright demands for things he or she doesn’t really need, from decadent foods to expensive toys to unreasonable appeals for parents’ time and attention. 

This type of entitled behavior pushes boundaries and buttons. Curbing a child’s entitled behavior is a challenge in today’s hyper-involved parenting culture, but it’s vital to raising resilient, emotionally healthy children, says Raleigh-based Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and bestselling author of “The Me, Me, Me Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World.” Here’s how to start. 

Early Years

Time for me

In the throes of early parenthood, it’s all too easy for parents to lose track of their own wants and needs. Time with friends, regular exercise, even showers, go by the wayside as we arrange our world around a cooing little one. While this shuffling of priorities is natural and healthy, it’s also unsustainable over time. Your own needs eventually resurface — you need to get a haircut, get some work done or simply get showered. Per clinical psychologist Leon F. Seltzer, author of “Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy,” continually allowing your world to revolve around your child fosters an entitled attitude. In short, don’t be surprised if the toddler who never hears “Dad’s busy, I’ll help you soon,” or “Please wait for a moment,” becomes a demanding, entitled tween. Balancing the family’s schedule and priorities to give everyone’s needs top billing now and then — “Sorry, but tonight Mom has a book club meeting, so we’ll go to the park tomorrow”— helps kids learn to tolerate not instantly having every need met while building important skills like recognizing and appreciating the needs and priorities of others. 



Chore Chart

Asking for costly clothes, gadgets or vacations is common for children, especially those who see their peers sporting $150 shoes or a tan from their latest island getaway. Scientists call this tendency “availability bias.” A sixth-grader who expects to get a $400 Apple Watch because most of her peers have one isn’t necessarily entitled, because the expectation is a natural byproduct of her environment. That doesn’t, however, mean that you should spring for purchases that feel extravagant or don’t match your family’s values. Use these requests as opportunities to talk about the work required to earn enough money for a high-end purchase. Assign kids paid chores helps to help reinforce these messages while teaching real-world lessons in accountability and discipline.

“Earning money for chores teaches children that work is valuable,” says Rebecca Pavese, a financial planner and portfolio manager with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Atlanta. “To send a clear message, however, children need to be held accountable to actually do the chores to the best of their ability. Giving children money for chores that they did not complete does not teach them that they need to work for their pay.” 



Gratitude Adjustment

Many teens take for granted the things they have to be grateful for, including health care, electronics, plentiful food and access to transportation — and are unaware of the hard work others do on their behalf. Learning to appreciate life’s many gifts can help children and teens grow into happier, healthier adults. McCready recommends building a gratitude ritual into the family’s daily routine. Have everyone share something they’re grateful for at dinner each night, or hang a chalkboard in a central location so family members can jot down daily appreciations.

“Or, get a big jar and encourage everyone to jot their ‘gratitudes’ on slips of paper throughout the week and read them aloud together each weekend,” she says. “Making thankfulness part of your family rituals will help foster a sense of gratitude in your children that they will carry with them throughout their entire lives.”

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and family journalist.