Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Entitled to Entitlement?

When my dad was growing up, he lived on a working dairy farm.  I'm quite sure he was up before the sun, helping to milk the cows and gather the eggs before going to school.  His parents both lived through the Great Depression, and with that experience in mind along with living in an extremely rural area, they brought their two boys up with an extremely hard work ethic and a focus on analytic logic rather than empathy, compassion, and warmth.

Ironically, my father only remembers one incident where he felt greatly afraid and disrespected by an adult, and that experience was in second grade.  He had a teacher who regularly engaged in the practice of smacking children's hands with a ruler, hard.  Not for what we would consider disciplinary infractions, but for a lack of understanding of course material, working too slow, or a myriad of other potential infringements upon her "rules".  That memory was so vivid for my father that he, being a man who shared very little with us, had shared that memory with my mother and his children by the time we were six or seven.

You're probably wondering right now what the two above paragraphs have to do with the idea of entitlement.  Clearly, our definition of entitlement these days brings about images of demanding children and adults, or pictures of people who are needy and due the entitlements of all human beings.  One could argue that my father was entitled to some things he didn't get, and I'm not sure that I could say that's wrong.  From my own education and experience, I would agree that he would probably have thrived a bit more if he had been raised in a more nurturing home.  The results of his childhood years produced a young man who failed out of one school, enrolled and served his country succesfully for three years in the army, came home and completed two different degree programs before marrying, becoming employed, having children, and eventually completing his Master's degree.  To many people, my father would be the epitome of success.  His final position lasted over thirty-five years and led to him being vice-president of a four-year private college.

Today, we are much less likely to see parents who enforce early rising and even chores around the house.  It's becoming less apparent to see parents who can even say "no" to a toddler in the supermarket who is demanding a toy or a candy bar.  My experiences--which I'm sure echo most people's--tend to range from a screaming, out-of-control mother who is spanking her child in the grocery cart to a bawling child whose parent then placates with a gift.  Both actions send a message to the child.  The first mother sends a message of, "I can't handle this stress so I'll give you negative attention to get you to be quiet."  The second parent--the one we're most concerned with today--sends a message of "If you're loud enough, I'll give you whatever you want."

Children are quickly to pick up on a sense of entitlement, more from our actions than from what we tell them.  We may tell children it's not okay for anyone to hit them; but when we go to the store and the child engages in inappropriate behavior and is then rewarded for it, we teach a strong lesson of entitlement.  "I'm entitled to a treat for having to put up with this trip with my mom," becomes the lesson.  Even more powerful are lessons in which parents actually advocate strongly for their child to have something that they worry the child is missing out on.  For example, many years ago children in my class took turns in engaging in an activity at home.  More than one parent approached me, afraid that their child would not have a turn.  The reality is that somebody has to be first and somebody has to be last.  The order was a random one, chosen by drawing children's names each day.  I ensured the parents that yes, all children would have a turn.  But as parents, it's extremely easy for us to get caught up in our own senses of entitlement for our children.

Here is what our children are entitled to:  having all physical needs met (food, shelter, clothing); having emotional needs met (love, respect, caring); having the opportunity to build friendships in a psychologically safe environment (being able to socialize safely); having the opportunity to participate in a meaningful educational experience; and having the opportunity to express and work toward goals s/he sets for him or herself.

Here is what we often think children are entitled to, but are NOT: fairness, extra consideration (moreso than their peers), having their own desires put above those of other children or adults, experiencing rewards for poor behavior or even just mere existence, and the ability to say (and do) whatever they choose without experiencing the consequences of their actions.

You may be asking yourself right about now why in the world a child is not entitled to fairness, and it's a fair question.  I tend to see it this way: none of us are entitled to fairness.  We ARE entitled to concepts such as justice, freedom, and representation.  But the reality is that the world is inherently unfair. Our job as teachers and parents is not to make things fair for every child; it is to make sure the needs are met for every child.  Each child is an individual and therefore has unique needs.  It is a waste of time and energy to insist that every child experience exactly the same thing so that it is "fair".  None of us experience a level playing field, and the earlier children realize it, the better we can teach them the rules of society and the world, and the less entitled they will feel.

Many parents get caught up in the entitlement game in a desire to eliminate the lack of fairness in the world.  By trying to even out fairness, parents actually teach their children entitlement.  "I deserve a great car as much as the lady down the block, so I can take hers, or I can go buy one at a 19% compound interest rate."  These are the choices that entitled children often grow to reason with, instead of recognizing that yes, the lady down the street drives a cadillac, and I've worked hard to get my truck, but there's pride in that.  I worked hard to get it."

Challenge yourself to consider the hidden messages of entitlement you may send your child each day.  Thanks for reading, pass it on, and click on the links!

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