As I lay in the hallway, gently scratching my dog’s ears, a delightful moment was interrupted by the arrival of my crush. She noticed us and playfully remarked, “Well, aren’t you spoiled!” Her smirk was met with my own smile as I replied, “No, she spoils me.”
However, upon reflection, I realized the fallacy in the notion of a spoiled dog. I understood that my furry companion’s time with me would be shorter, and I wanted her to experience a life filled with comfort and love until her last days. It wasn’t about spoiling her but rather ensuring that she was fortunate enough to enjoy the care she deserved.
This realization often resurfaces in my work as a child psychotherapist. While my thoughts no longer revolve around the crush (although I occasionally wonder about her fate), the concept itself remains relevant.
Few qualities are as universally disliked as entitled behavior stemming from being spoiled. Paradoxically, parents around the world express their greatest aspiration as providing their children with more than they had themselves.
How can these two truths be reconciled?
In my opinion, the solution is simpler than it appears. The key lies not in the material possessions parents provide but rather in their behavior and approach to life.
Before delving deeper into this issue, let’s examine it from a broader perspective. Decades ago, a movement emerged in schools with the aim of boosting self-esteem and countering children’s disproportionately negative self-perception. Despite the controversy surrounding it, this approach has proven effective in improving academic performance.
Today, we often hear about the younger generation being spoiled and entitled. However, the actual evidence contradicts this perception. In fact, our efforts to enhance self-esteem have led to a generation that is less entitled and more compassionate than any in recent memory.
In other words, the perceived widespread spoiling of children is often exaggerated, and the reality is that things are improving.
I believe there are only three ways in which a child becomes spoiled:
- If the parent themselves are spoiled and raise the child with a sense of entitlement.
- When the parent is neglectful, expressing care solely through material possessions.
- When the parent, with good intentions but uncertainty, gives the child more than they should.
This article aims to assist parents who fall into the third category. The first two categories are unlikely to find value in these words. For parents who genuinely strive to do their best, the goal is not to teach their children to settle for less but to develop their core self-esteem to a level where they can appreciate what they have and empathize with those who have less. By achieving this, parents can ensure that their children’s flaws do not include entitlement.
Here are five tools to aid in this endeavor:
1. Set an example for your children by demonstrating the right behavior instead of merely instructing them. Children learn more by observing their parents’ actions than by listening to their words. Developing minds rely on the innate capacity to imitate those around them and moral values are transmitted through these subtle means. If you want your child to develop healthy habits, let them witness you eating well and exercising. If you want them to cultivate a love for reading, pick up a book yourself instead of criticizing their video game choices. Similarly, living within your means, upholding a moral code, and treating others with compassion are more effective ways to instill these virtues in your children.
2. Express genuine gratitude to your children and those around you. A lack of gratitude is a defining characteristic of individuals seen as entitled. While it is essential to teach children to say “thank you,” demonstrating gratitude yourself is even more impactful. Go beyond mere words and allow yourself to genuinely feel overwhelming gratitude from time to time, letting your children witness it. When they see your authentic astonishment at someone’s kindness, their young minds will absorb the experience and yearn to reciprocate.
3. Avoid excessive indulgence towards your children. In 1900, even the wealthiest individuals did not possess the luxuries we now take for granted, such as cell phones, air conditioners, or televisions. Determining an “appropriate” level of indulgence for your child is subjective, but finding a balanced approach is crucial. In my practice, I often encounter children whose parents provide more than they are comfortable giving, driven by a desire to appear generous or popular among their peers. Alternatively, they may fear their children’s anger or disappointment. This creates confusion in young minds as they pick up on their parents’ conflicting feelings – should they feel grateful or guilty? Were their desires wrong? In the long run, this confusion can sever the connection to their inner moral compass, blurring their understanding of right, wrong, and goodness. Consequently, they may come across as spoiled, despite not truly being so. It is better to be an imperfect parent who gives inconsistently but genuinely rather than experience disappointment or shame when giving. However, having a clear, consistent understanding of how much to give and sticking to your boundaries is even more beneficial. On a related note, your child’s arguments or tantrums against your boundaries do not necessarily indicate that you are wrong. It is a child’s nature to test limits. While it is important to listen to their concerns unless they genuinely convince you to reconsider, be firm and stand your ground. Deep down, they crave and need this from you.
4. Involve your children in financial matters. We often hear stories of CEOs who cut employee salaries while increasing their own. Conversely, there are leaders who reduce their own salaries as well. It is evident which ones earn genuine respect and loyalty from their employees. The same principle applies to parenting. Keep your children informed about your financial situation throughout the year. If it has been a prosperous year, perhaps you can buy yourself a new car for Christmas and get your child a PlayStation 4. If finances are tight, you might make a down payment on a used car while your child receives a few games for their existing console. The lesson they will learn is that love and the joy of giving and receiving remain constant, regardless of financial circumstances.
5. Express gratitude for everything your children do. The most effective tool in avoiding the creation of entitled individuals is to combine all the above methods and, counterintuitively, thank your children whenever possible. Allow them to experience the joy of receiving gratitude firsthand. Program their minds to derive immense satisfaction from giving and model this behavior for them to emulate. Doing so will plant the seeds for a caring, generous, and contented young adult.
Returning to the encounter in the hallway, my crush eventually became my girlfriend, while the dog remained my loyal companion. Can you guess which one developed a sense of entitlement, resented my other relationships, and made it abundantly clear that I was insufficient?
And which one expressed gratitude every day for whatever I could offer, even if it was just coming home to her? She gave her all, not only to me but also to others, until her final days.
While moments of indulgence may occur, treating your child – or your dog – with sincerity and inner strength often foster integrity. By staying on this path, you may contribute to a broader movement. Here’s to hoping.