Raising Entitled Kids: Do our kids need so many things?

    Our 13-year-old son’s cell phone was initially meant for calling home if baseball practice was cancelled, but has morphed into one cool gadget he carries with him everywhere, except, incidentally, to baseball practice where “it might get lost.” 
    Cell phones are just one of many entertainment options my generation did not have growing up, such as round-the-clock TV programming of every flavor, video games, personal music players and social networking sites. According to most parents, their kids don’t view these things as privileges but as basic human rights they are entitled to. 
    Should this sense of entitlement be cause for alarm? Or does voicing concerns merely make us sound like our own parents 30 years ago?

Parent Concerns

     Whether it is warranted or not, parents worry. “I have moments when I’m very concerned about my kids living in a bubble,” says Lisa Nickel of Leawood, who has three boys ages 9 to 13. Dozens of other local parents have voiced the same fear – that their kids might grow up spoiled and without ambition, and never learn what hard work means. 
    Much of the blame lies with parents teaching poor spending habits, according to Valerie Owings, a parenting consultant and founder of “Parenting with Peace” in Independence. “Families go into debt just to get their kids things,” she says. She also sees an alarming trend of entitlement issues in blended families, where moving around between step-parents and even grandparents blurs the line between wants and needs. “Divorced parents don’t always agree on values to raise their children by, such as having to work toward things,” Owings observes. “The children know this and if one caretaker says, ‘No,’ they often get it from another.” 
    Even if you make your child work for a new cell phone or video game, she’ll feel entitled to use it around the clock, unless you budget time for reading and playing outside. Our parents did not have that problem. Reading and playing outside were our entertainment.

The Times Have Changed

    But some parents think worries about entitlement are overblown, and a reflection of parents begrudging their children the things they didn’t have. 
    “My kid is no more entitled than I was as a kid,” says Elaine Mitchell of Kansas City North. “I had a bike, electricity and the opportunity to finish college – my mother did not. You can’t compare apples to sawhorses.” 
    Shari Schaake, a counselor at Lakewood Middle School in Overland Park, attributes much of the change in today’s students to a general shift to a faster paced society, where things are much more readily available than even a decade ago. Most of us hate to wait for anything, she argues, and when you put teenagers, who’ve always been a bit selfish, in such an environment, it is surprising how well they actually handle it.

Ways to Keep Your Kids Grounded

     While Mitchell feels statements like "Wow, we never had all this to choose from!” speak of envy more than concern, she acknowledges that children shouldn’t just always get what they want. “There might be better alternatives than spending money if we really listen to our kids,” she says. For instance, her 10-year-old son may ask for a new PlayStation, but talking with him reveals he is worried that friends are bored at his house. Excitement, then, is his true need, and can be found more cheaply with a little brainstorming and creativity. 
    Creating a family budget has been the most effective way for Nickel to confront her worries. “I think it has really helped the boys appreciate that everything has a cost and that we have to live within our means,” she says. She keeps a running tally on various spending categories, so that the kids can see, for instance, that there is only $40 left for eating out this month. “Not only are our kids learning the difference between their needs and wants and how to manage money, but we are saving more than we ever did before,” says Nickel. 
    Mary Lynn Jaeschke, another local mother given to worries about entitlement, says she and her husband have regular discussions with their two boys about buying power. “Whenever one of them wants something expensive, we talk about how long he would have to work for that at minimum wage,” she says. “Then we look at jobs that pay better and what level of education is needed for them.”

Helping Others

     What all of these parents have in common is making their children aware of the larger world around them. Volunteering and giving to those in need is another wonderful opportunity to achieve this goal, according to Schaake, even if it means “slowing down and sacrificing one of the many activities on your kids’ busy schedules.” 
    The same can be said for chores. Children who have to help at home learn about the needs of others around them and understand that work is a part of life. Don’t be tempted to skip over chores in favor of homework. I’ve found that our kids usually find ways to do their homework (even if not at the time we would prefer them to), and that regular chores lead to more cooperation all around.

Happiness vs. Instant Gratification

    So what of the question of whether our kids have become too entitled? Maybe we’re just worrying—like parents have for generations. Nevertheless, it makes sense to deny our kids certain pleasures. Managing scarce resources, a life skill, is best learned when resources are, in fact, scarce. And I will go out on a limb and lay blame for part of today’s childhood obesity crisis on parents who can’t say no to their children.
Who knows if delaying gratification won’t in itself lead to more happiness? As Mr. Spock, of Star Trek fame, once said: "After a time, you may find that 'having' is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as 'wanting.' It is not logical, but it is often true."

What parents can do:

  • Create a family budget
  • Brainstorm for creative ideas to offer interesting play dates
  • Discuss family values and goals with one another
  • Give kids an allowance
  • Perform community service as a family
  • Assign regular chores
  • Create screen and phone blackout times
  • Establish a waiting period for coveted toys
  • Read How Much Is Enough? by Jean Illsley Clarke

Eva Melusine Thieme lives in Overland Park with her family.

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