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2020-02-09 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine Inoculating Kids Against Entitlement

Inoculating Kids Against Entitlement

How gratitude and grit can change the way a child sees the world.

It seems reasonable for parents of means to want to share these resources with their children, but how many of us have seen that instinct result in young people who aren’t particularly appreciative, or even really aware of the value of these gifts? While a sense of entitlement is an unattractive attribute to observe in anyone, watching it emerge in our own children is a far more unsettling experience. Ask successful New York parents what keeps them up at night and you’ll find this topping the list.

More than anything we make or do in our lifetimes, our children are our most important personal legacy, the evidence of how we lived our own lives translated through what we pass on to them. Investing in their character helps ensure that any other kind of assets assigned to them leads to our children carving out meaningful, purpose-filled lives.

Context is everything when it comes to children developing into independent, happy adults, and the framing device that most powerfully shapes this outcome is gratitude. Looking at the world through the lens of gratitude changes the way we process events that happen to us, and the stories we tell ourselves about that data. 

Experiencing and expressing gratitude activates positive emotion centers in the brain and literally changes the way our neurons fire. It broadens our thinking patterns and helps us develop a more connected view of how we fit into our communities. Gratitude creates a generous mind-set that increases our patience and optimism. Can you imagine any descriptions more divergent from the me-mine-more state of entitlement many of us fear for our kids?

“Ask successful New York parents what keeps them up at night and you’ll find entitlement topping the list.” 

Psychologists conclude that fostering gratitude is among the most critical activities we can do to attain the holy grail of parenting: grounded, appreciative children ready to earn their way in the world and contribute meaningfully to it. Grit follows as a close second in helping children persevere toward their passions and work through the difficulties inherent to that trek. Grit also teaches children the discipline and value of hard work, something that is likely at the heart of your achievements, and equally as likely to be the crux of theirs. 

But an achievement mind-set can’t be doled out like an allowance: it’s fostered and modeled, and ultimately requires more of our time than our money. We can pay for expensive schools, coaches, and enrichment activities—all of which look good on paper, and arguably produce impressive grades. But if these money-driven gifts come at the expense of (or are replacements for) mindful parenting, then all the pricy tutors in the world aren’t likely to steer our kids away from developing a sense of entitlement alongside those straight A’s and a perfect backhand.   

Top independent schools across the country, and increasingly even universities, are giving considerable weight to these non-cognitive character traits during the admissions process, to the point that they’re now assessing them through an SAT-affiliated evaluation called the Character Skills Snapshot. Through a 20-minute series of questions about social awareness, resilience, and intellectual engagement, students are given scores of “emerging,” “developing,” or “demonstrating” in such attribute categories as gratitude, grit, curiosity, initiative, open-mindedness, self-control, and teamwork. The online device helps to paint a more holistic picture of the school’s applicants and, presumably, helps it find better cultural matches. 

The assessment tool comes from a team of educators and psychologists behind characterlab.org, a research incubator and dissemination platform for the aforementioned character skills. “Character refers to ways of thinking, acting, and feeling that benefit others as well as ourselves,” according to its charter. “Character is plural—encompassing strengths of heart, mind, and will. Strengths of heart (such as gratitude and kindness) enable harmonious relationships with other people. Strengths of mind (such as curiosity and creativity) enable independent thinking. Strengths of will (such as grit and self-control) enable us to achieve goals.”

Top independent schools began making these non cognitive skills a priority as they vetted a steady stream of expensive academic resumes being presented during admissions season. The students attached to those resumes were invariably impressive, but among the applicants coming from privileged households, a sense of entitlement sometimes factored in as well.

“Remind your kids that they belong to your home’s culture first, and that money is the least interesting part of what it means to be a member of your family.” 

No parent ever sets out to produce an entitled child, but when we’re distracted by obligations attached to the kind of incomes needed to send kids to these private schools, their character development can sometimes be outsourced to their detriment. It’s something of a vicious cycle, and raising our children in a culture of grit and gratitude within our own homes is a powerful antidote. 

It’s possible to be both demanding and supportive parents, to require much of our kids even as we require much of ourselves. Ask your children to do chores in the home—not for allowance, but to gain appreciation for the work required to create a comfortable place to live. Encourage them to give service outside the home as well, either through their school, church, or community centers. It’s much harder to feel imperious and entitled when you’re actively getting to know, and serving, people less fortunate than yourself.

While it’s easy to exert influence over our kids with economic incentives, these are short-lived and unreliable motivators. We want our children to comply with our requests, but also to understand why we made the requests in the first place. We want them to internalize our values. Demonstrating respect, patience, and appreciation for the people in our households goes a long way toward accomplishing that as our children become mature enough to distill how much we, ourselves, live up to the expectations we set for them. 

So we explain to our kids how we developed our own passions and resilience, reminding them that our path to achievement wasn’t necessarily a straight line, and that theirs might not be either. Be willing to discuss your failures and what you learned from them. Encourage them to take reasonable risks as they determine what gives them a sense of accomplishment and larger purpose. 

Create a family culture of grit and gratitude that leaves no room for entitlement. Conformity within a group is a powerful motivator, so forge an identity of what it means to be a member of your family. Gritty, grateful mentors and friends outside the home can help as well, and some children even come by these virtues through internally driven engines. But no matter how these character traits are fostered, use them as body armor against the pervasive world of materialism they’re navigating outside the home. 

When their friends are name checking designer labels and far-flung vacation stories, it’s tempting for our kids to slip into that default mode. Remind them that they belong to your home’s culture first, and that money is the least interesting part of what it means to be a member of your family. 

Entitlement: Symptoms & Solutions

  1. Thinking rules apply to others, not to them, and expecting to be rescued from mistakes/problems at school and in life. Practice exposure therapy to the consequences of not following rules, ramping up the magnitude as their capacity for accountability increases.
  2. Expecting to be first, best, smartest, most well-treated, well-liked, and can’t handle when they’re not. Difficulty with disappointment, failure, or hearing the word “no.” Share your own stories of struggle, frustration, and failure, along with what you learned from these valuable life lessons. 
  3. Putting themselves and their needs/wants above those of others. Thinking that things are never good enough. Engage them in service projects to help recalibrate their sense of interdependence within the community. We can’t help but come to appreciate people we serve.
  4. Prone to jealousy if a friend has something they’d like to have. Inability to show gratitude for what they’re given. Create family gratitude journals for daily, morning summaries of what they have to be grateful for. At family meals, make this topic a centerpiece of conversation.
  5. Can’t accept blame, and tend to palm it off on someone else. Might even lie, cheat, use opportunism to get their way because they think they deserve it. Clearly codify the penalties for this antisocial behavior in your home and be consistent in enforcing its consequences.
  6. Expecting incentives for good behavior instead of doing this for its own sake. Reluctant to help even when asked. Insist that your children do chores around the house. Start small if this is a new concept; every family begins from where they are. Don’t associate allowance with chores.
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