What is an entitled child in the first place? In an article by the same title as mine, Molly Lopez of Highlights.com asks that question. She posed it to a panel of experts and received this reply:
“Typically, entitled kids believe the world revolves around them, that things should be done for them, and that paths should be cleared for them without them putting in much effort. Signs of entitlement include not taking ‘no’ for an answer and acting helpless when they’re not. When an entitled kid messes up, he expects to be rescued. He tends to not be grateful for what he has, and he finds it difficult to be content. Also, he requires constant entertainment. Any child on the planet will exhibit these characteristics from time to time, but if you’re seeing them as a regular pattern, you should ask, ‘Is this an entitlement issue?’”—Ms. McCready “The entitled child feels that she deserves what she wants at all times—financially and/or emotionally. This is very common and normal for very young children. Toddler entitlement is a natural part of growing, but there are limits.”—Dr. Milanaik
Ok, pause. If we genuinely believe that behavior is communication, what might “entitled” behavior be communicating? What I’m seeing is a child who a) is craving meaningful connection, b) struggles with intrinsic motivation likely due to excessive rewards, c) has not been guided in perspective taking and emotional regulation, d) has not had an opportunity to feel bored or disappointed, and e) has not had their competencies respected. Children cannot learn how to meet these needs on their own.
I propose that entitled children do not exist to begin with and urge my readers to reconsider using such stigmatizing, childist terminology against children.
Any time we’re invited to classify children by their outward behavior, I will always have concerns. Labels do save lives when they are adopted by people who can use them to lean into their identities and find community. But, at the same time, when labels are imposed upon marginalized groups by marginalizing people, we need to stop and question what the motivation might be. In this case, it seems to me that adults label children “entitled” to avoid admitting that these same children are not being treated well by adults or guided appropriately. This is not to say that so-called “entitled” behavior is the “fault” of a parent, but there are certainly ways parents can help children not have to rely on uncomfortable behaviors to get their needs met. Here are some ways to help.
Children are full and complete human beings at birth. They desire to be accepted into the social circles they’re born into and those their paths bring them into. Connection doesn’t have to be complicated to be meaningful. It’s choosing our kids over and over, day in and day out, especially when life tries to distract us from our role as caregivers. Some of the simple ways we can connect with our kids, with their consent of course, include:
- Reading to your children
- Playing with them
- Physical affection
- Investing in their interests
- One-on-one conversations
- Helping them with chores and projects
- Doing fun activities away from home
A child who is firmly connected to a caregiver tends to be less driven to seek out attention and approval from other sources.
Intrinsic Motivation vs Rewards
Arbitrary rewards are the flip-side of punishments when they are used to coercively modify the behavior of children. They are harmful and unhelpful. So, when a child who is desperately seeking meaningful connection receives rewards in place of connection, they will become demotivated to seek out connection in a healthy way. In other words, if we meet a child’s desires without meeting their needs, we will contribute to intense connection- and reward-seeking behavior as an undesirable substitute.
The easy fix is to avoid punishing or rewarding children in order to change their behavior. Kids don’t need sticker charts or ice cream to encourage them to do what we ask them to do. That’s manipulation. Instead, foster a relationship with your child. Establish family expectations and teach them how to meet those expectations in developmentally-appropriate ways. Use connection and limits to gently guide and encourage them.
Perspective-Taking and Emotional Regulation
Perspective-taking refers to the ability to see a situation from someone else’s point of view. It is a skill that cannot be rushed through the stages of development. There are a few schools of thought on how perspective-taking fleshes out in humans, but generally speaking, here’s where we stand.
- 1-year-olds can match the emotions they see in others
- 2-year-olds will try to help if they see another person is unhappy
- 3- to 6-year-olds start to recognize that other people have different emotions than they do and express empathy
- 7- to 12-year-olds can understand that emotions are complex and may not derive from the immediate circumstances
- 10- to 15-year-olds can hold multiple perspectives at once and form a big picture
- 14- to 18-year-olds can begin to investigate social systems and their influences on others
While we can’t rush development, we can certainly support it through emotion coaching in which we help our children name their emotions, notice how others are feeling, work through what has brought the emotions up, affirm their feelings, and help them problem solve. Children who have been labeled “entitled” by-and-large will have not been given opportunities to develop these skills, which is pretty obvious when we consider what an “entitled” child looks like.
Boredom and Disappointment
I firmly believe children have a right to experience boredom and disappointment without an adult swooping in to make it all better. That drive to keep our children impossibly happy is an unfortunate side effect of toxic positivity and a compulsion toward perfectionism, neither of which is healthy or helpful. We can bear with our kids as they get bored or feel disappointed. We can empathize and express solidarity. We can do these things without creating conditions where our children lose the ability to tolerate discomfort.
Assuming Competence Without Breaking Spirits
I once wrote about the adage that we should “never do for a child what he can do for himself. A ‘dependent’ child is a demanding child… Children become irresponsible only when we fail to give them opportunities to take on.” I cannot adequately convey how horrible this idea is to me. It’s probably one of the driving forces behind the overall concept of “entitled” children and it is utterly childist. Yes, absolutely, we should assume children are able to do the things they want to do until they show us they need help. And, we should give them space to try. However, letting children fail without support is not the answer. The description of “entitled” children seems to point to kids who have been treated as incompetent and that needs to change. By the same token, proponents for pushing kids farther than they’re able to manage on their own is equally troubling. I’ve found a middle ground that has been helpful for me as a parent:
- A little failure is good. Letting kids figure things out on their own is crucial for their development.
- A lot of failure is bad. Leaving kids to become helpless in the face of challenge does no one any good.
- Our responsibility as parents is to help our children learn from failure without losing hope.
So, Should We Give In When Our Children Make Demands?
In a word, yes. I believe we should always give children what they’re asking for if is reasonably within our power. And, we absolutely do not need to manufacture opportunities not to give things to our kids. “Entitled” behavior does not derive from loving treatment by adults. I recently wrote about the power of “giving in” which explains my position:
Experts have lots of ideas for how to curtail “entitlement” in children, but I see so few acknowledging that “entitled” behavior is protective for children whose needs aren’t being met. Meet the needs, build the relationship, address any underlying mental health concerns, and stop labeling kids “entitled.”
“Entitled” children are children whose desires have been granted in place of meeting their needs.