Before even having kids, my husband and I were already having conversations about how we planned to parent. One of the main themes that always came up was not wanting to raise kids who are bratty and entitled.
How did that work out for us? I think this meme just about sums it up:
Like most things parenting-related, raising kids without entitlement has proven harder than we thought.
Not that my kids are super bratty or anything. I have certainly seen worse. But I thought my husband’s head was going to turn all the way around by the end of our last family vacation– after we had doled out money for treats, hotels, water park admission, and more- and the kids were relentlessly asking for extras. “I want to do the rock climbing wall!” “Look, they have an arcade! Can we go there???” “Can we get room service, Daddy? WHY NOT?!”
It wasn’t pretty.
After that experience, I started re-evaluating our approach on the entitlement front. We’ve been consistent with some of these strategies from the beginning, and others we just starting to focus on now. But here are the 8 ways we are working towards raising kids with less entitlement and more gratitude.
1. Hone in on your parenting goal
The first step to raising kids without a sense of entitlement starts with you, the parent, making a shift in your mindset. Like a you would with any business or job, come up with your parenting mission statement.
I always cringe a little when I hear parents say “All I want is for my child to be happy”. If your goal is simply to make your child happy, you are well on your way to raising a spoiled, entitled person who thinks life is all about their own happiness.
Instead let’s say your goal is to raise an independent adult, a contributing member of society, or just a general decent person. Would this change the way you parent? Instead of giving him things to make him happy, you’d be giving him skills to lead a productive life.
2. Teach empathy
Just look at any toddler and you can tell that empathy isn’t something that comes naturally to humans. Small children are completely egocentric beings, thinking only about what they want without regard for others. Clearly this isn’t a trait that we want to continue beyond toddlerhood, so it’s up to us to teach them. Here are some first steps:
-Model kindness and spell it out. Say out loud when you’re doing something for others and explain why. “I’m making a sandwich for Daddy because he is running late this morning and I think he would feel happy if I helped him”. “I’m bringing this soup over to Grandma because she is sick and I’d like to help her feel better.” Kids copy what they see us do.
-Give them the vocabulary to describe feelings. When I worked as a child therapist, this was always my starting point with clients. It’s amazing how many children think the only emotions are happy and sad. Some kids will throw in mad, but that is where it ends. Teach your children as many feelings as you can think of, including frustration, jealousy, pride, loneliness, and guilt. Name these emotions in real life when you see them. “I can see that you wish you had that doll your sister has. It looks like you might be feeling jealous. It is ok to feel that way, it’s just not OK to grab it out of her hand.”
-Ask them questions about how others are feeling. This can be from a book or real life. “How do you think the character felt when his brother was teasing him? How would you feel if that happened to you?” With enough practice, kids will begin to consider others’ feelings on their own.
-Have them come up with their own solutions. When kids fight with friends or siblings, don’t just force an apology. Have the child consider how the other person felt as a result of their actions. Then ask the child what they think would make the other person feel better. This will teach them empathy as well as problem solving.
3. Express gratitude
Gratitude is the antidote to entitlement. It’s about appreciating what you have instead of always needing the next thing.
Having kids say “thank you” is a start. Remember, if they don’t say thank you when you hand them their PBJ at lunch time, they aren’t going to say thank you when they’re at a friend’s house or at school. (Have you ever volunteered in your kid’s class and only heard one or two “thank you”s when passing something out? Doesn’t it stand out in your mind which kids actually said it?)
The next step is to express what you’re grateful for. If you just ask kids what they’re grateful for, you will probably get the knee-jerk Thanksgiving response: “I’m grateful for my family” or the like. Be more specific. When something bad happens, have them look for the good. Teach them the skill of finding the positive in any situation.
One easy trick to work on this skill is to go around the dinner table each night and answer the question “what was something good that happened today?” Even if the child had a tough day, this will help them look for the good. Parents should answer the question as well to model (and it’s never a bad idea for adults to practice daily gratitude too!).
4. Contribute to the household
Kids aren’t going to appreciate all the work their parents put into running the household if they have no idea what that work is. Doing household chores themselves gives kids a sense of how much effort goes into putting that meal on the table and having clean clothes in their drawers.
Contributing to the household gives children a sense of purpose and responsibility, which builds their confidence in an intrinsic way (without praise from outside sources). It also reinforces their role in the family and gives them a sense of belonging. There is so much written about the benefits of doing chores, it’s surprising how few families actually practice it.
5. Build work ethic
You know that feeling of elation you get when you’ve been working really hard at something and you finally achieve it? Don’t deny your children that feeling by doing everything for them. In fact, a good rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t do anything for your kids that they are able to do themselves.
As parents, when we see our children struggling with something, our inclination is to swoop in and help. Instead, try encouraging persistence. If they still aren’t getting it, try giving them a strategy to try.
Have a kid who likes to quit as soon as things get tough? (I have one of those). Try to re-write their internal script. Reminisce with them about a time they achieved something by working for it, like learning to ride a bike or tie their shoes. Remind them how their hard work paid off. A can-do attitude and encouragement from Mom and Dad will get them a lot farther than having someone else do it for them.
6. Manners are a Must
Yes, my kids shout demands at me sometimes like they are the master and I’m a doll-fetching robot.
If your kids ever do this to you, no judgement from me. But if you allow it and actually do what they demand, I’m throwing you some serious shade.
Do not let your child speak to you in a way you wouldn’t let your husband (or friend, or coworker, or stranger on the street) speak to you. You can’t expect kids to treat others with respect if they treat their family members like dirt. Feed them the appropriate words to use and don’t give them what they want until they ask politely. It might take 1,000 repetitions, but that’s how habits are made.
Hot tip: “MOMMYYYYY, I’M HUNGRYYYYYY!” is not an acceptable way to ask for food. 😉
7. Wanting something is not a good enough reason
Whenever we hear one of our children start their sentence with “I want” this is the reaction they get:
If it’s just a glass of milk they want, they can simply rephrase it to “may I have a glass of milk please?” But if it’s something along the lines of “I want you to buy me that!” they are consistently told that wanting something is not reason enough for getting it.
Differentiating between a want and a need is critical for children to understand. When they see something they want, you can ask, “Is this something you need?” Sometimes I will throw in “Did you bring your own money to buy it?” If the answer to these are “no”, then they are swiftly told put it on their birthday or Christmas list and we just keep on walking.
8. Get into the spirit of giving
After a few Christmases where our kids were very much focused on getting ALL THE THINGS, we decided to try a different approach. We took each child shopping individually (this was a big deal in itself because with 4 kids it’s always a big deal to do something with just one child!), gave them a budget, and let them buy gifts for the other three siblings.
Instead of writing a wish list about what they wanted, we had them brainstorm a list of ideas they thought their siblings would like. After they went shopping, they got to wrap the gifts with the help of Mom, choosing which paper each sibling would like and writing cards to their brothers and sisters.
This small gesture changed the entire focus of Christmas for the kids. After opening their stocking presents, they BEGGED to give out their gifts. Each child squealed with delight when the present they gave was being opened. The receiver of the gift appreciated the small toy so much more knowing their sibling had put thought and effort into the gift. Unprompted, they hugged each other after opening each one.
*Cue the proud, teary-eyed parents smiling at one another.*
By shifting the focus from receiving to giving, the kids acted much less greedy and more loving that Christmas morning. This prompted us to think of ways for the kids to “give back” all throughout the year. Here are some ways you can try:
With some creativity and lots of persistence, we are hoping these strategies help us to raise grateful, un-entitled kids.