If you give in to every little want and need your child expresses, you create and nurture a false sense of entitlement, which can lead to significant problems later on.
Almost as soon as your child begins to talk, you’ll start to hear him ask for things. When an infant cries, he’s asking to be fed 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 constant 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.
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, movies, social media, 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 feeling of obligation can lead to parents giving much more than their kids need—and sometimes, more than their family can 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.”
This thought often makes parents feel proud and good about themselves, and it motivates them to spend more than is reasonable 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 their friendship.
The truth is, your child probably isn’t saying those things. Some do, but most don’t. The teen brain is self-centered, and a true sense of appreciation may not come until later in adulthood. That’s okay. It’s not a lack of appreciation that is the problem; rather, it’s a false sense of entitlement that is the problem.
If a child has a false sense of entitlement, then by the time he reaches adulthood, he firmly believes that his parents owe him whatever he wants. So the combination of instinct, social pressure, and the need to be liked by their kids can make parents overindulge their children.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying it’s terrible to give to your children. But I do believe 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 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 and electronic gadgets 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 their family’s financial situation.
The attitude of a child with a false sense of entitlement is, “I am, therefore, give to me.”
I believe it’s critical to challenge this attitude. Indeed, 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. That’s why, as a parent, it’s important that you teach your child the value of hard work and earning things. He needs to experience the 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’re ready to challenge your child’s false sense of entitlement, I recommend the following techniques.
Whenever you want to get a message across to your children, I think it’s essential to think through what you 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:
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.”
Teach your child to start connecting the dots. Think about what you want your child to learn. Think about 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.
I think it’s important to put limits on what you give your children. Don’t feel as if you need to provide them with 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 parents work to make money to support the family. Try to explain that you trade your time for money to take care of the household.
When your child asks for things, I think it’s perfectly fine to say any of the following:
“You’re welcome to buy that with your birthday money.”
“Why don’t you put that on your Christmas list?”
“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. On the contrary, it makes you a practical parent who wants to teach your child to be realistic and mature about money.
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’re going to give your kids money or things, come up with a system where you can deliver the goods to them so 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.
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.”
And then finish up with the following in a business-like manner, and your child will know that you are serious:
“We’re going to start this Saturday. If you want to earn money, you’ll have to see me on 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.
When you talk with adolescents, you can expect a severe reaction to your words, especially if they’ve come to expect to get things without having to earn them.
After all, they’re probably thrilled with the way things are right now, and they may balk at the idea of having to work for the things you’ve been giving them up to now.
The way you prepare for this talk is by saying to your child:
“I have something that I need to talk to you about that’s 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.”
Setting the expectation for a serious and business-like talk is 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 possible. So when you speak to your teen, try to put things in his best interests. You can say:
“I want to help you earn some cash because I know you 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 game. When you’re ready to clean out the garage, I can pay you, and you can start saving up.”
If you have the financial capability and believe in the concept of paying kids to do work around the house, I think it’s better to give your child money to do 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 $15 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 $9 an hour will look 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 $108 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 and refuses to work for money, then offer the job to their siblings. Allowing your child to refuse will send the message that a job is an opportunity, not a punishment. Of course, if they won’t do the work, you can’t then give them money. They need to face the natural consequence of not working, which is no pay.
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 entitled to whatever you give him.
But how do you do this? It’s easy. You just say clearly:
“I wanted to give you something extra.”
“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 will 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 develop contempt for people who work to earn things.
I believe that a false sense of entitlement affects all socio-economic classes. Kids who grow up this way don’t want the available jobs because they believe 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. But make no bones about it, that skewed view of the world is going to affect them negatively their whole lives.
The good news is that you can start teaching your child today about what it means to work hard and achieve—before it’s too late.
Related content: Narcissistic Children and Teens: Does Your Child Act Entitled?
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.