Laura Markham, PhD, Guest
“Contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world…. they’ve been given unprecedented amounts of stuff.” – Elizabeth Kolbert, in her New Yorker article Spoiled Rotten: Why do kids rule the roost?
Kolbert’s right that all of us — not just young people — have a lot more stuff today. This doesn’t answer the questions raised in her article about why kids don’t help out, or are disrespectful or disobedient. (We’ll get to those next week.) But maybe it does address another question that’s implied by the term “spoiled” in the headline of her article – Why do so many young people today seem to feel so entitled?
Of course, this isn’t true of all young people. 21% of kids live in poverty and another 23% are considered to live in low income families. Almost half of American children probably grow up in a state of needy longing, as they watch TV and assume other kids have something they don’t. Living in poverty is one of the prime risk factors for kids’ well-being, so these are the children our society is failing most obviously.
And I know plenty of kids who aren’t “entitled” at all — teens who express gratitude for what they have. But younger kids, age appropriately, don’t have a context for life. They don’t actually know the value of a dollar, or even whether they’re lucky or unlucky — only that their friend Bobby has cooler sneakers.
But I do know families where even teens, who could know better, do seem to feel “entitled” to lots of material possessions. How can parents avoid this?
1. Teach Values: What matters most to you? The people you love? Doing good in the world? Following your passions? I’m betting you didn’t say “Stuff.” Kids near to hear explicitly what matters most.
2. Role Model: Children won’t always do what you say, but they’ll always, eventually, do what you do. If you shop for relaxation or fun, so will your child. If you “must have” the latest tech toy, your child will follow in your footsteps.
3. Counteract the message that happiness can be bought. As parents, we need to remember that we aren’t the only ones teaching our children about life. TV is a very effective teacher, and if it has your child’s ear, it has a direct line to her brain. Studies show that most adults say they’re not affected by TV ads, but in fact those ads influence them deeply. Imagine how much more true that is for children, who get the constant media message that the goal of life is more money and more things. Ultimately, what we model and what we tell them will matter more, but we need to confront those destructive messages directly, and when possible keep them from reaching our kids.
4. Recognize that buying is an addiction, since our brains give us a hit of dopamine every time we chase, conquer, acquire. It isn’t wanting that gets us into trouble, it’s WHAT we want. Material things don’t satisfy our hunting urge for more than a day or so before we crave more. Instead, help kids discover the emotional rewards of other kinds of chases besides shopping, such as practicing and getting good at playing basketball, cooking, writing, music, or some other passion. (Reminder: This needs to be the child’s passion for it to be rewarding.)
5. Don’t feed your child’s emotional hunger with possessions. Often when we feel guilty that we aren’t spending enough time with our kids, we buy them things. That’s a red flag to stop, drop your busy-ness, and get clear about your priorities. What can you do with your child today to simply enjoy her? How can you set up rituals in your week to spend more time together? As the old saying goes, children come out best when you give them half as many presents and twice as much of your presence.
6. Don’t Buy Your Child Off. If you’re bribing, it’s time to find another way to help your child want to cooperate. Occasional rewards are fine. Bribes teach all the wrong lessons.
7. Re-evaluate your own buying decisions. If you notice your child seems to feel “entitled” to material possessions, consider what you’ve been teaching him. Do you buy everything he asks for, just because you can? I’m not suggesting you teach your child that he doesn’t deserve (of course he’s deserving), that he’s greedy for wanting things (all of us want things, all the time) or even that you can’t afford it (which can lead to a sense of deprivation).
Just say “That’s not on our list (or in our budget) for today.” Admire what he’s asking for, and let him tell you what’s great about it. Show him that you’re adding it to your list for his birthday or another special occasion. And always suggest that if he really wants it, he can find a way to earn the money for it (See #8 below.)
8. Help your child learn the value of hard work. Remember the days when kids did odd jobs all summer to earn money for a bike? Those kids knew the worth of a nickel, took care of their bikes, and felt enormously empowered. They knew they could realize their dreams by working hard. I’m not saying you can’t buy a new bike just because your child outgrew his old one, but all children need to learn that if they work hard at things, they can make their dreams come true.
9. Help your child learn how to hold a job. I believe that all kids need the experience of working for pay, which teaches them real responsibility in the real world. When your eight year old wants something badly and her birthday’s still far off, let her earn the money for it by paying her to do tasks you wouldn’t normally expect of her (washing the car, weeding the garden). This can easily expand as she gets older to odd jobs in the neighborhood (walk the neighbor’s dog or offer snow shoveling service in the winter), move on to mother’s helper/babysitting jobs when it’s age appropriate, and finally take on after-school or summer jobs. Even if your family has plenty and never needs your teenager to work, every teen should learn by experience what it takes to earn a dollar. Few settings teach as much about responsibility as the world of working for pay.
10. Hold your child accountable for damaged goods. If kids help pay for lost library books and cell phones, windows broken by their baseball, or tools they’ve left out to rust from their own savings, they learn a valuable lesson about valuing what they have, rather than assuming someone else will simply “buy another.”
11. Every child deserves the pleasure of giving his own money to a worthy cause. This is a great way to educate kids about others in need, which gives some perspective to our own lives of relative plenty. Try giving a little extra weekly allowance that goes in a special “charity” jar, and letting him get that good feeling about himself by giving it away when he hears about a worthy cause.
12. Cultivate Gratitude. There are many ways to help children learn gratitude, which is the opposite of taking what we have for granted. The most obvious is including gratitude practices in your daily life by making a game of sharing things you’re grateful for on a daily basis.
13. Educate yourself. You aren’t raising your child in a vacuum. Our culture is centered around consumption — accumulating more and more stuff. You and your kids are surrounded by messages that buying stuff will make your life better, and it’s so hard not to respond to that drumbeat. I highly recommend the short video “The Story of Stuff” which will make you laugh, change the way you look at things, and maybe change the way your family lives.
Notice a thread here? If kids today feel entitled, it’s not because they’re “bad.” It’s because we’re raising them in a culture of entitlement, one that values acquiring stuff over developing our unique gifts to contribute to the world, and even over being a good human being. And too often, we compound that problem by not ever teaching them the value of hard work. To help kids change, we have to examine our own lives and assumptions.
The good news is that these practices do work to raise kids who aren’t “entitled.” What’s more, they make your life better. Because when we take the emphasis off stuff, we shift it to where it belongs: Making a meaningful contribution, which is essential to happiness.
This post is part of the series Are American Kids Spoiled Rotten?
May you create miracles today, large and small.
About the Author
Dr. Laura Markham trained as a Clinical Psychologist, earning her Ph.D. from Columbia University. But she’s also a mom, so she translates proven science into the practical solutions you need for the family life you want.Her relationship-based parenting model has helped thousands of families across the U.S. and Canada find compassionate, common-sense solutions to everything from separation anxiety and sleep problems to sass talk and cell phones.What’s her philosophy?Children who feel connected WANT to cooperate. They need guidance — limits with empathy when necessary — but never punishment. Some people refer to this as Peaceful Parenting, Connection Parenting, or Gentle Guidance.Dr. Marham’s website can be found at: http://AhaParenting.com.
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