By Jenny Friedman, Ph.D., author of Doing Good Together
It’s easy to see how a child could act spoiled or entitled in today’s culture. Advertisers spend $17 billion annually targeting children, exposing each child to more than 40,000 advertisements a year. And their message is irresistible: Possessions bring joy. Parents can fall victim as well, with the assurance that they can easily purchase happiness for their child. Too much television programming glamorizes and encourages self-absorption, too. MTV’s reality series My Super Sweet 16—in which wealthy parents throw extravagant coming-of-age parties for their teens—is one outrageous example.
Certain parenting trends can also undermine a parent’s attempts to raise thoughtful, appreciative children. For example, the current focus on building “self-esteem” with relentless praise can rob children of the satisfaction of hard work, the resilience to cope with failure, and opportunities to express gratitude and generosity—all qualities more likely to lead to happiness and success than a home full of toys or awards.
In a culture where messages of entitlement abound, here are some ways to help your child manage those pressures:
- Require chores. Age-appropriate chores, starting when your child is three or four, teach responsibility, competence, and the value of hard work. Research indicates that doing household chores has a surprisingly positive impact, leading to more academic and career success, better relationships, and greater self-sufficiency.
- Make giving back routine. Contributing to the common good can be easily woven into your everyday life. You’ll also find opportunities for meaningful conversations about what others are struggling with. A few examples:
- Adopt a food pantry. Decorate a grocery box or basket and keep it in your kitchen. Each time you go to the grocery store with your children, choose an extra item to place in the box. When it’s full, donate the food to your nearest food pantry. Take a tour of the facility, talk together about why families might be hungry, and learn which foods are most needed.
- Spend some time each month making cards for children who have serious chronic illnesses. Imagine together how the kids will feel when they receive the cards.
- Create a giving jar and have family members donate a portion of their allowance each week. When it’s full, decide as a family which cause you’d like to support.
- Each time you head to the park, make it a rule that each family member picks up five pieces of trash before starting to play. Discuss the importance of community responsibility.
- Find other fun, easy ways to make a difference as a family at Doing Good Together™.
- Practice gratitude. Like any skill, gratitude needs to be taught—and practiced. Have your family spend a few minutes each day (at the dinner table or at bedtime) naming what you’re grateful for, focusing particularly on people who have contributed to your well-being. (Be specific and try not to repeat the same people or items day after day.) This practice encourages a habit of scanning the world for what’s most wonderful. It makes us more appreciative—and more compassionate.
- Prioritize kindness. In a 2014 Harvard University study, two out of three children said that it was more important to their parents that they were happy and successful than that they were kind and caring. It’s critical to be clear and explicit about your values, emphasizing that kindness, integrity, and compassion matter most. Ironically, nurturing these pro-social qualities is more likely to lead to a fulfilling life for your child than obsessing about achievement or trying to assure that they are always happy.
- Do “180s” with your children. Ask them to imagine what the world is like from other people’s points of view—their bus driver or teacher, a friend who’s made them angry or a neighbor who is ill. Talk about what the characters in books you read together are feeling and why those characters acted as they did. By using children’s “compassionate imagination,” they can begin to see the world from other perspectives—and understand that they’re not at the world’s center.
- Set loving limits. Let your children know when boundaries have been crossed. Be serious, but not harsh. Remind them of the impact of their actions and that you care both about their feelings and the feelings of others.
The beauty of these simple practices is that they not only challenge entitlement and nurture kindness, generosity, and compassion, but ultimately they make our children happier and more successful. In turn, they make the world a better place.
Jenny Friedman, Ph.D., is founder and executive director of Doing Good Together. She is a leading, national expert on family volunteerism. She works with schools, businesses, youth-serving organizations, and congregations in addition to families and groups of families. A sought-after speaker, Jenny has volunteered with her family of three children for more than twenty years. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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