Entitled?

Do our children feel entitled to have all the things they see around them?  A friend who spent Christmas with children and grandchildren was struck by the fact that every gift unwrapped was an ipad, an iphone, an ipod, an electronic game, or something else in the world of technology.

A mother told me that her son had been begging her for an ipad which she was opposed to getting for him.  It had become a major area of conflict.  Then, at a birthday party she discovered that every boy in his class had an ipad.  She felt torn between her own feeling that this was inappropriate and empathy for her son as the only one of his friends not to have one.

Many parents have described this same conflict.  Children are bombarded from all sides by alluring “toys”.  They live in an electronic world in which it seems that exciting new gadgets appear daily.  They are taught early on to use the computer in school.  There is endless software of mixed value for children, and they play games on the computer at home.  Preschool children have their own cell phones.

In many ways play has been commercialized to a new level.  Since the early days of television parents have been struggling with children’s exposure to all kinds of games and toys presented as exciting fun.  But the conflict parents feel now is more intense for several reasons.  One concern is that many of these new “toys” open a world to children that may be inappropriate for their age, or have content of which parents don’t approve.  Many video games are violent.  Children are drawn to the computer for instant messaging instead of homework.  The result is many more areas of conflict between parents and children.

A second important reason for parents’ concern is that these new “toys” are expensive.  Buying an ipad is not the same as stopping at the five and dime store (if there still is any such place) to placate a child who is begging for a new toy.  For parents who cannot afford to buy the things children want, the issue is much clearer.  That family has greater priorities.   Often parents feel inadequate because of their inability to provide these things.

Yet what I hear from many parents, those who have the financial means and those who don’t, is a sense of outrage at what they hear as children’s demands.  They are angry that children seem to feel entitled to have what they want.  What is puzzling about this is that children have always thought they should have whatever they want.  That is the self-centered nature of childhood, and that is why there have always been conflicts between parents and children.  Children want one thing and parents want something different – whether things or behavior.  

What seems to be driving this now is the cost of many of these new things, and perhaps the sense that they were not really intended for children.  What bothers many parents is children’s apparent lack of awareness of, or indifference to the expense involved.  The feeling seems to be that children have no right just to expect things of this magnitude, to act as though they have a right – are entitled – to them.

But sometimes I wonder if this is not our own conflict as parents which we want our children to solve for us.  It’s as if we wish they wouldn’t ask so that we wouldn’t have to worry about whether it is right or wrong to say yes or no.  On the no side, perhaps coming out of our own upbringing, is the feeling that it is just wrong for a child to get so many expensive things.  But then on the yes side is the identification with our child wanting to have what the other kids have; our realization that it is a different world out there from the one we may have grown up in.

A big part of the problem lies in thinking there is a right answer.  Part of the challenge of being a parent is in having to think these things through again and again.  Children grow and mature, which changes the answer.  Situations are different, and that changes the answer.  Parents have different values, and that changes the answer from one parent to another.

But what can help is to realize that these requests or demands are really no different than the ones children have always made.  It always comes back to the same question:  How do we help children learn to tolerate frustration, to accept not getting everything they want, to respect parental decisions even when they don’t like them.  These are the things we have to start teaching from earliest childhood: making our own decisions based on our own values, about when and when not to gratify children’s wishes, and helping them deal with their disappointment or anger when they don’t get what they want.  

This teaching and learning have to begin long before the ipad question rears its head.