Raising children with a sense of entitlement Asset or Liability
By Suzanne Anderson, MSW, Counselor
Putting together a number of books I have recently read and my own experience leaves me pondering whether entitlement is an asset that helps children to succeed and get ahead in life or a path to self-deception that puts an individual out of touch with what is appropriately expected in society. This discussion is intended more as “thinking out loud” than a “how-to” on an issue I hope you find as relevant to raising our children as I do.
Malcolm Gladwell in his most recent writing Outliers: The Story of Success discusses the question, “What makes people successful?” Part of the answer has to do with the culture they grow up in. Children who grow up in an environment of “concerted cultivation” (as described by sociologist Annette Lareau) have parents who “foster and assess a child’s talents, opinions and skills.” The children learn how to “customize” (A. Lareau) the “environment they are in, for their best purposes.” (M. Gladwell) Gladwell describes this resulting sense of entitlement as being “an attitude perfectly suited to succeeding in the modern world.” This power to “customize” is a product of a life of privilege. It is those who are privileged, who have the ability, the resources and the knowledge of how to customize their environment to their liking.
Enter Madeline Levine’s writings, The Price of Privilege: How ParentalPressure and Material Advantage AreCreating a Generation of Disconnectedand Unhappy Kids. Levine describes the most recently identified “at-risk” youth as those being from affluent, well educated families with economic and social advantages. She describes them as experiencing the highest rates of “… depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness…” These children sound like the same children Gladwell describes as coming from an environment where they are most poised for success. What is the difference between Gladwell’s and Levine’s children?
It is Levine’s reference to an inclination towards substance abuse or addiction that stands out in this discussion of entitlement. One of the challenges in working with people with addictions is to bring into awareness thinking errors that support addictive behavior. One key thinking error is the self-deception of entitlement which can sound like: “I am special, unique. Rules don’t apply to me like they do to everyone else. I deserve special consideration, treatment or privileges.”
Putting this all together, it appears that the very same resource - entitlement - which can contribute to success, can also be the root of being “at-risk.” I suspect that the answer to the question of whether entitlement is an asset or liability lies somewhere along a continuum. How do we define a sense of entitlement for our children that helps them ask for what they need, to feel that they have something of value to contribute, while not letting that sense of entitlement become overgrown into a belief that they are better than or above, the requirements of being contributing members of their communities?
Inherent in the term “entitlement” is a focus on self. “What do I get? What’s in it for me? I deserve… You owe me.” What is lacking is a focus on others. What can I give? What can I contribute? What do I have to offer?
Throughout this discussion I am taken back to a conversation I had more than 25 years ago when an insightful leader of a community youth organization said that advantaged children are as needy as poor children. It is what they lack that is different. For the poor children the deficit is a lack of economic and social advantage. For the advantaged children it is the deficit of motivation.
For many parents there is a desire that their children have it better than they did. Parents remember times when they didn’t have what other kids did; when they had to wear hand-me-down clothes from their cousins; had to share a bedroom with a sibling and perhaps a bathroom with all of their siblings and parents; baby sat or ran a paper route to earn extra money; worked weekends and during school breaks at age 14.
These parents were motivated - they were hungry to make things different. Now parents can give their children a trip to a different country for each holiday, their own room and bathroom, their own computer, MP3 player, and hand phone. If a teen has most material things they want by the time they graduate from high school or earlier, what do they aspire to?
Is there a place for keeping our children “hungry” - wanting more? Is there a place to say “no” when it is within our means to say “yes,” for children to learn to manage frustration and desire without getting what they want, experiencing delayed gratification. To create in our children the same motivation that fueled us to work hard to make things different.
I remember reading an article in the Washington Post many years ago discussing the advantages of having kids share a bedroom even if there was enough room in the home so that they didn’t have to - learning to share, compromise, use space creatively, and negotiate.
It has been said that the work of children is school, but is it only school or do they have a role in the larger community? What about chores at home - even if there is a domestic helper? Teachers can tell within two weeks of the start of school which students have chores at home and which ones don’t.
Can family travel incorporate more rustic opportunities where cooking, cleaning and rigorous physical activity is required? Trips which include humanitarian work in orphanages, house building and the like can teach children how to give back to the global world, of which they are citizens.
While baby sitting and paper routes are not as in demand in Singapore as they are in many of our home countries, is there some way that youth can work to earn some of the items they want? Certainly, with the entrepreneurial environment in Singapore there are some innovations awaiting discovery.
Maybe the balance we are seeking is to give our children the opportunities of entitlement as described by Gladwell, as well as teaching our children a counterbalancing sense of responsibility and accompanying sense of motivation.
Perhaps out greatest challenge in parenting with a balance of entitlement and responsibility is holding ourselves accountable and doing it differently than what others are doing. Are we modeling for our children a life balanced between what we get, what we wait for and what we give? As we seek this balance for our children we may be met with resistance. “How come I don’t have this, all my friends do?” But that resistance is the very voice of entitlement reminding us why we are striving to create a sense of hunger, desire, motivation and responsibility in our children.