The Cure for the Common Brat

Inoculating Your Child Against the Entitlement Bug

You don’t have to live near the Jersey Shore to spot the symptoms.

Images and details of bad behavior by self-aggrandizing adults routinely are flaunted on TV, YouTube, magazine covers and newspaper pages. People who think they deserve newer, better and more—even though they can’t afford it—sink deeper into the credit abyss. And relationships end via text, Tweet or status update, with little regard for the other person. Even toys are marketed to encourage pint-sized divas. Need a Bratz doll, anyone?

The entitlement bug has struck.

And, according to recent studies, an epidemic of narcissistic behavior— fueled by an increasing overemphasis on individualism and self-focus—is wreacking havoc on society.
So what can you do to immunize your child against the prevailing self-centered mentality?

Well, before you turn to Dr. Phil or Nanny 911, here’s the good news: you are your child’s best defense against the pervasive me, me, me virus.

An Ounce of Prevention

Entitlement is so destructive because it ruins relationships and convinces our children their desires and needs trump all others.  

So teach empathy and compassion to prevent entitlement from taking hold, says Susan Crook, local author, speaker and certified human behavior consultant. Encourage your child to look at those less fortunate and ask, “If I were them, what would my life be like?” And then help your child act on the realization.

Crook’s own daughter was so moved after seeing a show about children in Africa without clean water that at the age of 10, and with the help of her mom and much prayer, dreamed up the All-American Girl Tea Party—American Girls Saving Lives Around the World. The annual benefit, now in its fourth year, has raised more than $25,500 to dig five wells in remote parts of Africa.

“We have no problem with teaching our children to walk. And it takes trial and error. It takes falling down. It takes over and over and over again working with our child,” says Crook, who also has two adult children. “I think we should take the same attitude toward teaching them empathy and caring for others.” 

Crook—whose book Personality Insights for Moms! helps families avoid conflict by understanding, accepting and embracing each other’s personality styles—suggests tailoring teachable moments and activities to your child’s personality. That way, he or she feels understood and can more easily internalize the lesson. Also, if your personality styles differ, then you can avoid trying to force him or her into a situation that feels unnatural.

For example, if a child has a task-oriented personality, then he or she might connect more with helping an elderly neighbor rake leaves or put the trash bins back after trash day. On the other hand, a child with a people-oriented personality, for which compassion and empathy come more naturally, might want to entertain the person or just spend time with them. Tasks also can be done anonymously to prevent praise from becoming the motivator. 

Chane and Jennifer Hutton, Lee’s Summit, often use church opportunities to help refocus their three children. The kids are involved in mission activities, as well as their parents’ ministries. The couple also makes helping people a family activity, from collecting food and other items for the needy to giving someone a ride to church.  

The Prescription That Works

If entitlement has caused your children to see you as a human ATM and to think the world owes them more than what they contribute, then the best medicine is to put them to work.
When Hutton’s 8-year-old son broke her new $15 candle holder while playing basketball in the house, she forgave him after his tearful apology but still made him work off the debt. It took several months for him to pay for the replacement out of his allowance, but Hutton hopes “the lesson will make him more aware of the correlation between money and work.”
Both Hutton and Julie Griggs, Olathe, assign their children chores and tie a payment to the completed job. Hutton’s children get an allowance and have to save up if they want special items that are not in the family budget. Griggs works on a point system with her 6-year-old, whose chores include helping take out the trash, cleaning her room, helping with the dishes and putting away her laundry. She gets “paid” one point for each task. Fifty points buys her dinner at the restaurant of her choice, and 100 points earns her a night out at an age-appropriate movie.

A Dose of Reality and a Spoonful of Sugar

Finally, “Junk the self-esteem emphasis and teach self-control and good behavior.” That’s the advice psychologist Jean M. Twenge gives parents in her book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable.

Twenge says that “self-esteem has limited benefits, but self-control is linked to success in life.” Instilling healthy self-worth is good. However, bombarding a child with constant “I am special” messages only leads to self-admiration, which feeds entitlement. Eventually, the child starts thinking, “I’m more special than you,” and “If I’m so special, then I inherently deserve everything I want.”

And that’s where we are, according to Twenge, with no sign of change in the near future.

But take heart.

Although you never will be able to completely isolate your children from the media images, advertising lures, peer attitudes and other societal influences that promote entitlement, your positive guidance is just the treatment they need.

Melinda Ablard Smith is mother to two great kiddos, wife to one amazing man and owner to three unashamedly entitled Chihuahuas. She lives in Olathe and teaches journalism at MidAmerica Nazarene University.

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