“Why did he think he was better than everyone else?” my four year old asked as we were reading the picture book Little Blue Truck. In the story, a huge construction truck comes barreling through a farm, proclaiming, “I’ve got important things to do!” As a consequence of his pride, he slides into a mud puddle and his huge tires get stuck. In the world of trucks, he’s a bit of an entitled brat.
Answering my son’s question was tough. Why do some people think they’re better than others? Why do some people think they deserve more or better than other people do? As challenging it is to answer these, they’re essential questions to figure out if we’re going to raise kids who respect and value other people. In other words, to prevent raising entitled kids.
Personally, one of my big fears is that my kids will grow up to be entitled. They’re white, upper-middle-class, able-bodied, neurotypical (as far as we know) kids who are assigned male at birth. They’re starting pretty low on the difficulty setting of life, as John Scalzi calls it.
Unfortunately, society tells people in their situation that they deserve it all, even when it’s to the detriment of others. After all, America elected a man president who bragged about to doing whatever he wanted to women’s bodies. (And many, many others in the past who acted that way.) Visions of professional Wall Street jerk Martin Shrekli and the kid who was mostly let off drunk driving charges because of “affluenza” haunt my nightmares.
Fortunately, both social science and my own experience has shown me a few major things that separate people who consistently value others from those who don’t. Here’s what we’re doing as a family to try to prevent raising entitled kids.
Say no and explain why
A lot of people say the way to prevent entitlement is to consistently say “no” to kids. It’s definitely true that it’s not healthy to buy kids every single thing they ask for. (And they’ll remember when you say no – I still remember my mom telling me that I couldn’t have a Teddy Ruxpin.)
But being entitled is about so much more than physical stuff. In fact, it’s even more important to say “no” to behaviors that negatively affect other people. When you help kids see situations from other people’s point of view, they can better understand not just that a particular action is wrong or harmful, but why.
For example, Sprout is slightly obsessed with opening and closing doors. For whatever reason, he has it stuck in his head that at least one of the doors to our church sanctuary should be closed at all times. However, those doors need to stay open because people use them during the service. In particular, Don, the person who washes dishes in our kitchen, sits in the hallway and watches the service from there. If Sprout closes even one of the two doors, Don can’t see. Instead of just telling Sprout he can’t open and close the doors, I explained the effect doing that had on others.
Without that explanation, Don probably just would have remained in the background to Sprout. He’s just not at the age where he would have noticed. But because I described someone else’s needs, he better understood the impact of his actions. (Unfortunately, he doesn’t yet have the self-control to actually do it, but we’re working on that one too.)
Practicing gratitude helps us be content with what we have instead of always wanting more. Each night, we say thanks at dinner, expressing how grateful we are for the food and the people that helped produce it.
As part of our bedtime routine, we discuss our favorite things that happened that day. That little exercise forces us to recognize something positive from our day, instead of dwelling on the negative. There are many times that it’s made me realize a little moment of grace that I might have otherwise forgotten!
Talk about privilege
Teaching your kids about their level of privilege is huge. Privilege of all sorts determines what you are forced to care about – or not. Having economic privilege means you can always afford food. Having racial privilege means you aren’t forced to think about racism. And so on.
The key thing to realize about privilege is that it isn’t earned. Society determines certain types of people deserve power and respect more than others. If you have privilege, you were just lucky enough to be born into a group or position that society values.
While discussions of privilege can go to some very complex places, don’t be afraid to talk to your kids about it! If we don’t explicitly explain privilege, kids (and everyone else) assumes they have these advantages because they’ve earned them. Kids want the world to be fair, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior. Unfortunately, our society is so far from fair that it’s not even a speck on the horizon.
When I was a kid, my mom taught me about privilege, even though she didn’t use that particular word. She was always talking about kids who had a lot less than I did, whether it was in terms of money or their parents’ time and attention. The key thing was that these weren’t some abstract kids in Africa; she helped me understand how privilege was different just across town.
Now, we’re already started pointing out these advantages to Sprout when the opportunity arises. The fact that he asks “Why?” about literally everything actually gives us a lot of ins.
Teaching consent – in all of its forms
I love my children deeply and am a huge fan of hugs. But I still set physical boundaries. In particular, I don’t let my kids climb on me or touch my hair if I don’t feel like it. If I say no and they don’t stop, I get up and walk away.
Besides my own comfort, I do this because want to teach them that they aren’t entitled to mine or anyone else’s body. Sexual assault and rape occurs both because people believe they have a right to other people’s bodies as well as that others will passively accept it. As the recent “Me too” campaign on social media shows, these attitudes are still rampant. In contrast, I want my boys to actively push back against rape culture.
Similarly, I want to teach them they aren’t entitled to anyone else’s time and energy. Obviously, my husband and I have an obligation to them. But they need to understand they can’t just demand people do things for them. If Sprout yells “I want it now!”, I ask him to reword it with a more respectful tone. We try to model this as parents too, using please and thank you towards them. For us, it’s about more than manners or respecting adults – it’s about respecting everyone.
Talking about characters who are entitled in books – and those who aren’t
I know “reading books” is my answer to a lot of society’s ills, but children get so much out of putting themselves in characters’ positions. Talking about why the big dump truck thought he could speed opened up that whole conversation. It also helped Sprout think through other possible motivations for characters. He suggested the truck was going too fast because he wanted to be ahead of everyone else.
Other good books that address entitlement include the Little Engine that Could (the fancy engine and big engine refuse to help before the little engine does) and Yertle the Turtle (he believes he has the right to stack up other turtles into a huge throne). All three books feature a character who stands up to set an alternative example to the entitled one. In Little Blue Truck and the Little Engine that Could, it’s the title character; in Yertle, it’s “a little turtle named Mack” who burps and knocks Yertle off the throne.
A caveat to this – don’t pick a book where the protagonist is entitled in the beginning and then “learns a lesson” in the end. I think this is one reason parents loath Caillou. He’s a bit of a whiny brat the entire episode and then somehow turns it around in the last two minutes. Guess which part the kids imitate?
Make them take responsibility for their actions
One of the biggest signs of being entitled is an utter, deep-seated belief that you shouldn’t be held responsible for your actions.
Fortunately, you can raise responsible kids without harsh punishments. In our house, we practice natural and logical consequences. Rather than sending the kids to time-out, we try to have a consequence that is similar to what they would experience in adult life. If they spill cereal everywhere, they have to help clean it up. If a toy breaks because they didn’t pick it up, we won’t buy a new one. (Or at least not until Christmas.) If they spend too long getting ready and run out of time, we don’t go to the park.
Because they won’t always consider these consequences on their own, we do give them a heads-up before it happens. But if we’ve given them sufficient warning and they ignore us, we let those consequences occur.
Demonstrate radical generosity and respect
The most important but hardest part of not raising entitled kids? Not being entitled yourself. Kids pay attention and learn so much more from watching their parents than they do from listening to them. (Or listening at the “wrong” times.)
Showing your kids you’re willing to give away your time and money is one of the best ways to prevent them from becoming entitled. While kids pick up on everyday generosity, it’s also good to make it explicit. For example, we do much of our charitable giving through my payroll deduction at work. My kids wouldn’t have a clue about that unless we told them.
One way to illustrate that generosity is to involve your kids and provide them with an age-appropriate context to understand it. As a family, you can shop for a Toys for Tots holiday gift, buy food for a drive, or participate in a fundraising walk. Our church hosts a lunch program for local people who are homeless, so we talk about why we support this program. I also explain my volunteer activities to him, like how I go to community meetings to make biking safer for other people in our town.
One word of warning – please don’t volunteer to show your kid “how good they have it.” (At least one person writing to the Washington Post’s advice columnist basically said this.) No one wants to be the object of your pity. Volunteer because you believe everyone deserves to have their basic human needs met, not to turn them into an example.
As to why the big dump truck thought he was so much better than everyone else? Maybe his parents never told him no or explained how his actions affected others. Or maybe they outright told him that he could do what he wanted because he was bigger and more powerful. Like so much in children’s literature, we’ll never know.
But what we do know is what we teach to our kids. I hope that by doing these things, we can keep them from becoming entitled kids. Even if I still flinch when I hear Sprout scream, “I want a hug NOW!” Thankfully, we’re all works in progress.
For more on how I’m raising my kids to embrace respect, check out Seven Ways I’m Raising My Young Sons to be Feminists. For more resources, be sure to follow us on Facebook.