“I Want It Now!” How to Challenge a False Sense of Entitlement in Kids

by James Lehman, MSW
“I Want It Now!” How to Challenge a False Sense of Entitlement in Kids

Almost as soon as your child begins to talk, you’ll start to hear him ask for things. In fact, when an infant cries, he’s asking for food or to be made more comfortable. By the time he reaches the age of four or five, his constant refrain becomes: “Can I have this, Mom? Can I have that?" The unending requests for new toys or candy and an “I want it now” attitude may follow you every time you go to the store. Parents want to give to their kids for many reasons. It's partly instinctual—back in the Stone Age, “giving to your child” might have meant providing food, shelter and protection. Those urges are still there. Unfortunately, if you give in to every little want and need your child expresses, you are really feeding and nurturing a sense of false entitlement—which I believe can lead to problems later on.

The attitude of a child with a false sense of entitlement is, “I am, therefore give to me.”

I think it’s important to keep in mind that parents and kids get some powerful messages in our society. One of the most prevalent is, “The more you give your child, the better parent you are.” Children are also led to believe they're entitled to receive. Commercials, TV shows, movies, and their friends at school all tell kids, “This is the new thing. This is what everybody's getting. If you don’t have it, you won’t be cool.” So it’s easy for you as a parent to feel obligated to give to your child—and pretty soon, your child will grow to expect it. This can lead to parents giving much more than their kids need—and sometimes, more than their family can really afford.

Children also get a false sense of entitlement by being overly praised for things, and rewarded for tasks that they should be doing as a matter of course. There’s nothing wrong with rewarding achievement and excellence, but it becomes a problem when you reward mediocre efforts.

I’ve also worked with many parents who have the following fantasy: they imagine their child talking to their friends, saying, “My parents are great. They got me these new sneakers.” Or, “My dad’s the best—he bought me this bike.” Maybe your child is saying that, and maybe he’s not. Regardless, this thought often makes parents feel proud and good about themselves, and it motivates them to spend more than is good or necessary. There are those parents who want to be their child's friend—and consequently, they will often buy their child things because they’re afraid they’ll lose the friendship. This pattern may continue until the child reaches young adulthood. By that time, he firmly believes that his parents “owe” him whatever he wants. So the confluence of instinct and social pressure—and the need to be liked by their kids—can often make parents overindulge their children.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying it’s not a good thing to give to your children. But I do believe that the way you give to them can either help them develop a sense of ownership by earning things, or nurture a sense of false entitlement because they’re usually getting what they want, when they want it. And when kids grow up with a false sense of entitlement, you'll see them thinking they're entitled to expensive toys, electronic gadgets, trips and cars without having to earn them. They will do poorly in school and still want that car when they turn 18—and expect to get it. They’ll even tell their parents there's something wrong with them if they don't give them what they want, regardless of the family’s financial situation. The attitude of a child with a false sense of entitlement is, “I am, therefore give to me.”

So how do you challenge that false sense of entitlement in kids, and why is it so important to do so? I believe it’s critical to challenge them because once your child grows up and goes out into the real world, he will have to work for what he wants, just like everyone else. So as a parent, it’s important that you teach your child the value of hard work and earning things. He needs to really see that integral connection between making an effort and achieving success. Conversely, when things are handed to your child, the message he’s getting is, “You don’t need to do anything—everything will be given to you in life just because you’re you.”

If you want to start challenging this pattern in your child, I recommend the following techniques.

Challenging the False Sense of Entitlement in Kids

Ask Yourself, “What Do I Want My Child to Learn?”
Whenever you want to get a message across to your children, I think it’s important to think through what you really want to teach them. Ask yourself, “What do I want my children to learn about money and work to achieve success in life?” And then come up with a procedure that will teach them about finances. Some concepts which I think are important to teach from a young age are:

  • Money doesn't come easily.
  • People work hard to earn money; it’s part of life.
  • If you want something, you need to work to earn it.
  • You are not entitled to things you haven’t earned.

Break these concepts down for your child. You can say, “You can’t make a video game yourself. But when you’re old enough, you can work at Wendy's for a week and get enough money to buy a video game somebody else made.” You can take it one step further by asking, “And why did they make that video game? So they could earn enough money to eat at Wendy's.” Use the teaching role to help your child start connecting the dots. Think about what you want your child to learn and what you want him to take away from the conversation, because that is going to set the tone for the way he thinks about what he earns—and what you give him—from now on.

Set Some Limits on Giving to Your Kids

I think it’s important to put limits on what you give your children. Don’t feel as if you need to give them every little thing they ask for, even if “all the other kids have one.” I think it’s also a good idea to talk to your kids and let them know that you don’t have an infinite supply of money at your fingertips. Tell them from an early age that you and/or your spouse work to make money to support your family. Try to explain that you trade your time for money in order to take care of your household.

When your child asks for things, I think it’s perfectly fine to say, “You’re welcome to buy that with your birthday money,” or “Why don’t you put that on your Christmas list?” Or, “Why don’t you save up your allowance money and buy it?” Saying “no” to your child does not make you a bad or uncaring parent—it just makes you a practical one who wants to teach your child to understand money in a more realistic way.

Tell Your Child the New Rules

Let’s say that up until now you've been giving your child whatever he wants without expecting him to work for it. If you want to give your kids money or things, I think it’s important to come up with a system where you can deliver the goods to them in such a way that they feel like they’ve earned them. In my opinion, paying for extra work around the house is better than giving an allowance, because it gives you more flexibility as you reward them.

If you want to make some changes, I think you should sit down and have a frank discussion with your child.

Younger Kids: For younger children and pre-teens I think you can say something like, “Listen, I want you to learn how to earn some of the things you want by doing extra work around the house. I don’t mean by doing your regular chores, like setting the table or doing the dishes. So for instance, you could mow the lawn, shovel the walk when it snows, or clean my car when it’s dirty. Instead of giving you an allowance, I’m going to pay you to do these things. We’re going to start this Saturday. If you want to earn money, you’ll have to see me Saturday morning to find out what you can do.” Then, determine how much you want to pay him for these jobs and make sure it’s within your budget.

Adolescents: When you talk with adolescents, you can expect a serious reaction to your words, especially if they’ve come to expect to get things without having to earn them. After all, they’re probably very happy with the way things are right now, and they may balk at the idea of having to work for what you give them. The way you prepare for that is by saying to your child, “I have something that I need to talk to you about that's really affecting our finances. You're going to have to keep an open mind and be mature during this conversation. So why don't we get together at four o'clock. This is actually a great technique for you to use with your child. I used to say to kids in my office, “Listen, do you want me to talk to you like a young adult or a little kid?” Naturally, they'd always pick young adult. And then I’d keep my word and talk to them utilizing facts, not feelings. That means I would speak respectfully, frankly, and persuasively. In my opinion, when we talk to teenagers and young adults, we have to be as persuasive as we can be. So when you speak to your teen, try to put things in his best interests: “I want to help you earn some cash because I know you really want to buy that new video game. Here’s how you can make some extra money around the house.” If your child refuses to do odd jobs around the house, the next time he asks for things, you can simply say, “You know how you can earn that new DS. When you’re ready to clean out the garage, I can pay you and you can start saving up.”

Have Your Child Work to Earn Money

If you have the financial capability and you believe in the concept of paying kids to do work around the house, I personally think it’s better to give your child money for doing odd jobs rather than give him a weekly allowance. This way, your child will learn how to manage his finances, and he will also make the connection between work and payment. So let’s say your child gets $10 a week for mowing the lawn. (By the way, he shouldn’t receive this money until the lawn is done.) Then if he wants a video game that costs $50, he has to save for it—that’s how you develop a sense of earned entitlement. Later, a job at Wendy's making $6 an hour will look really good to your child. He'll take that job for 12 hours a week part-time, because he’ll understand that it will bring him $70 a week. He’ll be able to buy a new video game every week if he wants to, and he'll be entitled to do so because he earned it.

If Your Child Doesn’t Comply, Pay Their Siblings to Do the Work

I think it’s important for your child to understand when you’re giving him a gift. To put it simply, he needs to realize that he’s not simply entitled to whatever you give him. How do you do this? This one is a piece of cake. You just say clearly, “I wanted to give you something extra.” Or “Here's a gift from your mother and me.” Be sure to differentiate this from the money you give him for allowance, or the money he might earn from getting on the Dean’s list at school.

Remember, the danger is not having a sense of entitlement; the danger is having a false sense of entitlement. People who have this mindset often hold a negative view of hard work—they put it down and ridicule it. They think they deserve things they haven't earned, and they can develop contempt for people who work to earn things.

I believe that a false sense of entitlement affects every strata of society today. Kids who grow up this way don't want the jobs that are available because they have the belief that they're entitled to something better without having to make an effort. So that false sense of entitlement prohibits them from getting the work skills and the social skills they need to start at the bottom and work their way up.

One of my first jobs involved carrying bolts of cloth in a dress factory and loading trucks. I was 16 years old and I made $1.25 an hour. I didn’t think working hard to earn things was unusual because I had watched my father work all my life. He grew up during The Great Depression, and he always said, “If you want something, you have to work for it.”

Here’s the bottom line: When kids have a false sense of entitlement, they don’t see the world in real terms. When money and material goods have been handed to them their whole lives, the danger is that they won’t have the idea that they should work hard to achieve their goals. Their view of the world will be, “If I want it, someone will give it to me”—but as we all know, that’s just not the way the world functions. Once you leave your parents’ house, it’s up to you to make an effort to achieve some success in life. Sadly, you will often see older children living with their parents into adulthood, because that’s where things are easiest for them. But make no bones about it, that skewed view of the world is going to affect them in a negative way their whole lives.

The good news is that you can start teaching your child now about what it means to work hard to achieve goals in life—before it’s too late.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."



Comment By : Nisha

Good article

Comment By : atwilkins

I loved this article!!! Thank you for all your posts and sound help in raising healthy kids!! This article hit home because this is exactly the way we raise our God Daughter. I first starting reading your site when she came to us four years ago. She WAS the child in this article and her entire world WAS adversely touched by her attitude of false entitlement. We had to put into place rules and consequences - operation the hammer came down. I was being pressured and made to feel guilty about the old school ideas we where using by others. How could I not realize how much she was suffering after the loss her Mother and now moving to a new house hold?? I was advised to baby her, keep things the same, and be her friend. I kept telling them that if needed to wake up and tune into reality or she would suffer her entire life! Our job was not to be her friends, but to be her loving teachers showing her how to be successful in life. Your articles snapped me back to guilt free and confirmed what we where doing to raise her. Today, at 15, she is doing wonderfully in school with As and Bs. We NEVER have to tell her to do her homework and only rarely have to remind her of a chore. No payment is given for chores as every family member does their part to support the family! In social situations, we are all told how polite and pleasant she is to be around. She is a normal 15 year old and as such does things kids do, but the future is bright and our household is calm!! Once again - Thank you!!!!

Comment By : Auntie H

love that article. it is so to the point. i've been there with my older kids and my younger too. i am still fighting that fight. it is very difficult to change the 20 years old. i wish i knew that many years ago. you think that by giving everything to your child you are a good parent,but when they grow up and demand and expect from you to always give and never want to give anything themselves it is realy sad to the parent.makes you think you realy did something wrong as a parent.start at a young age, that is when you can succeed

Comment By : hopefull parent

I appreciate this article. Auntie H, I appreciated your comment. I am a caseworker for a residential facility and I want you to know that you are doing exactly what you're supposed to be doing. You're god daughter is blessed to be raised by someone with a "backbone" that desires the best for her, rather then friendship with her. Thanks for sharing your struggle. I just adopted my first child, she is 22 months and I desire to teach her even now that she can't have everything that she wants, and it's okay if that frustrates her, because she is learning at a young age what it is to be frustrated and how to manuever that emotion. This article reinforces and give me some more tools to use as she gets older to help her "learn to earn." As always James, thanks for your words of wisdom, they're greatly appreciated!

Comment By : foster mom

Excellent timing of this article, nearing Christmas.

Comment By : tex

Wonderful article. Thank you. Two comments: What does one do with overindulgent grandparents? When they give extra cash to a child who doesn't want to do chores (he'll be home from college shortly and needs spending money--and i have plenty of projects I can pay him to help do!) but who 'needs more' because he's older it undermines my lesson. I've elected to take the cash and give it to him later-after he's finished the projects-but this is a never-ending problem. Personally, I believe this kind of treatment is part of the reason my sister is currently in a rehab facility-for the 3d time.

Comment By : lovemyboyz

This article is terrific. One of the best I've read on this subject! With 4 kids, it seems like we always have at least one going through an entitlement phase. This is quite an encouragement. Thanks!

Comment By : SMC

Great article. But I've always been confused between "chores" that everyone needs to do around the house that shouldn't be rewarded w/ money, "chores" that are entitled to some money, and weekly allowances. Any explanation, suggestions?

Comment By : mdeline13

* Mdeline - What constitutes "chores" varies from family to family. Some parents feel that every member of the family should contribute to the household in some way - without monetary compensation, and others take a different approach. Whether kids get an allowance or not also varies widely. It really is up to each family to decide what is right for them - and then stick with it. Because household chores are not important to most kids, you will need to use something they value in order to get those chores done. Remember, consequences and privileges act as currency for your kids, so whether you use money or not depends on what your kids value and on what you feel is appropriate. For example, if you want your kids to do regular, daily chores without using money, let them know that their free time doesn't start until the chore is done (you might listen to the podcast "how to get kids to do chores"). If you choose to give your kids an allowance, be clear with them about what the allowance is for, and what they can expect to see happen if their daily chores aren't done. Breaking it down into daily chores can prevent the end of the week rush to get things done, and help to prevent the "but mom I have to go to the movies now! I'll do the chores later!" routine.

Comment By : Megan Devine, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear ‘lovemyboyz’: I do understand your concern about the importance of teaching a child to help out around the house. It’s important for all family members to contribute to the household and it’s not necessary to pay them for it. You can, however, pay them to do extra work, other than their usual expected chores. It sounds like your son is coming home for a college break over the holidays and you would like him to help out around the house. That certainly is a reasonable expectation on your part. It would probably be better if you did not take his gift money from his grandparents and then make him do chores to get their money back from you. Instead, you can let him know that you are looking for his help while he is here and problem solve over how he will be able to get some work accomplished during his vacation. If he refuses to help, you might say, “Well, when you’re here as part of the family, I do expect that you’ll help out a bit. I’d rather not give a consequence so let’s take a short break and then figure out when this can happen.” He may think it over and comply at that point. If not, you can always hold back a privilege of his—such as using your car—until he gets a chore done for the day. There’s a good article about avoiding power struggles you might find useful too. Let me send the link to that: Avoiding Power Struggles with Defiant Children Declaring Victory is Easier than You Think I appreciate your question and hope that this was helpful. Call the trained specialists on the Support Line for more ideas on how to apply the techniques of the Total Transformation program. They’re available, Monday through Friday 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM Eastern time, and on Saturday,10:00 AM to 6:00 PM Eastern time.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I like to take my very small kids to the toy section, to enjoy looking, but not buy anything. I think it is good practice, and builds up a tolerance to impulsive spending urges.

Comment By : lovinmomma

Very good article.

Comment By : mini

Typical self-righteous tirade. This imaginary "entitlement culture" is just the latest scapegoat for the real structural problems in society.

Comment By : cmon

Very good information and something I am dealing with currently. I could not open many of the links because of the php file extension. Adobe Acrobat pdf's open on all platforms.

Comment By : Mom

I would caution leaning to far into why young adults still live with their parents. The economy and job market has been pretty bad at times and sometimes a job at Wendys does not earn a person enough to pay rent and eat. There are no more jobs that work a person 8-5 Monday through Friday either so that a person could work another job for the time being. Young adults sometimes have to live with their parents longer as there are no jobs for a college graduate when they enter the work force. We also have to be aware that there are different cultures within our nation and we must not assume that our norm is the norm for everyone. For some cultures it may be the right thing to do to live with your parents for longer periods of time. Some expect their children to stay until they get married. So be very careful when making general statements in these articles on how to raise one's child.

Comment By : MrsWLCB

I'll admit to everyone here that I did this to my child. He is now 16, and last night, when he got caught in a lie about how he was taking advantage of me with our family's only vehicle, he walked off. I had no idea where he went. It was 11 at night. This morning, after failed attempts at contacting his friends, I had no choice but to call the police. They contacted my son, and I got a harsh email from him saying we were "through". He did not tell me, but the officer said was moving in with his abusive (only to me) father (because that's apparently a better option than staying with someone who gives him everything) and I don't know how to fix it. All night, throwing up, worrying, and for what. For a kid who could care less because I wouldn't give him the car day in and day out? This kid has everything going for him. Good girlfriend, almost perfect grades in school, everything. And he is willing to walk away from me. I just don't understand. I need help.

Comment By : Susan

* To “Susan”: I’m sorry you and your son are having a difficult time right now. It can be tough when you hold your child accountable for his behavior and he responds by leaving. I can only imagine how worried and anxious you were without knowing where your son had gone. Calling the police was a good option even though your son probably didn’t respond the way you were hoping he would. As hard as this entire situation is, try not to personalize his behavior. It’s really not about you as much as it’s about his not wanting to abide by the rules and expectations within your house. He’s choosing to deal with that particular problem by running away and moving in with his father. At this point, it may be most effective to focus on what you can control in this situation. You may not be able to control the choices your son makes but you can control how you respond to those choices. You might consider stepping back from the situation, giving it a little time and giving your son the opportunity to calm down. This is the first step Debbie Pincus suggests in her article Fighting with Your Teen? What to Do After the Blowout 7 Steps to Defuse the Tension. You might also consider finding out what types of resources and supports are available in your area. It can be helpful to have someone to talk to when situations such as this occur. There is a great service available that can connect you with services in your area. The 211 National Helpline can be reached by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by logging onto 211.org . We wish you and your son the best as your work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Great article! I know some that SHOULD read this, but probably won’t and if they did, they would not comprehend it. Have anyone ever thought about how the law supports and feeds this “entitlement”? It’s been a realization for me lately. The difference in parenting between a mother and father, separately raising a child, will create this monster I call “entitlement”. Not only for the child, but the custodial parent (in our case the mother) forcing it by using the law to make sure the “child” gets what they are “entitled” to. I’d love to tell my entire story here, but I’ll keep it short and vague by saying my husband and I are in a very difficult situation with his child’s mother. The mother has actually stated she will take us to court for his child’s entitlement from him. Yes, she used those words! Please understand, she has some big idea as to what his income is, which is just way off. We have been in court and passing papers back and forth for over a year now. It’s a no win situation for us. God, I pray this child has seen or heard enough from us to know the truth at some time in the future; and though the mother has shown entitlement as an example that we have had enough influence for the opposite to ring true once real life comes into play. This all started over rules that were broken and privileges we revoked as consequences to improper behavior. It was made clear to the child, by us, what it would take to regain and retain the privileges, but the consequences were an inconvenience to the mother so rather than teaching the child a good lesson, the mother taught the lesson that no consequences are needed as the “child” is entitled. The mother took us to court to get the child’s entitlement, rather than admitting the child was wrong and seeing that the child needs help, she's found a way to sweep the problems under a rug and not be inconvenienced by consequences.

Comment By : endthisbaddream

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