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Tearing Down Attitudes of Entitlement

Kids can learn habits that will help them for the rest of their lives.
Tearing Down Attitudes of Entitlement
Image: PAKULA PIOTR / SHUTTERSTOCK

It is strangely ironic that the freedoms and affluence we enjoy in our society are the very things that stand to ruin our children if not addressed early and effectively.

The consumer-credit industry is doing all it can to get your kids to fall for the buy-now, pay-later lifestyle. If you do nothing to intervene, statistics indicate that your child is headed for a life that will be severely impacted not by credit—credit is not the problem here—but by the debt it can create.

When the following three characteristics occur at the same time in the heart and mind of a child, they create a kind of "perfect storm" that has all the likelihood of creating a disastrous situation:

1. Attitudes of Entitlement

2. Financial Ignorance

3. Glamour of Easy Spending

For our debt-proofing purposes, "entitlement" is that demanding attitude that says, "I deserve it now even if I haven't earned it or cannot pay for it." Some call it the gimmes, others the I-wants. No matter what you call it, this attitude is running rampant, and not only among kids. Entitlement affects kids and adults alike.

Entitlement is subtle. It creeps into our lives when we compare our lifestyles and possessions to those of the people we respect and want to be like. It shows up in new parents who throw all caution to the wind when it comes to nursery furnishings and "mandatory" equipment. It shows up in two-income families who, because they work so hard, feel they deserve to have nice things. It shows up in adults who feel compelled to conform to society's relentless ratcheting up of standards.

The 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot wrote an essay entitled "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown." It seems someone gave Diderot an exquisite gift—a scarlet dressing gown (not something your typical guy today would get too excited about, but remember this was in the 1700s). Diderot was so happy to get a new dressing gown that he promptly threw his old one away. Curiously, he hadn't noticed how tattered the old gown was because it was comfortable and blended into his surroundings.

The contrast between the new scarlet gown and everything else in his study was startling. While Diderot was wearing the gown, he couldn't stop noticing the threadbare tapestries, the worn chair, and the beat-up bookcases. Piece by piece he replaced everything with something more closely suited to the elegance of his robe. Diderot closes his essay regretting ever receiving the scarlet robe that forced everything else into conformity. Today, marketing professionals and consumer researchers call this constant reach for conformity the "Diderot effect."

Entitlement is the standard message of marketing and advertising. Look carefully at everything that shows up in your mailbox this week. All the marketing or advertising pieces carry some underlying message that you deserve this, you need that, and you'll never be completely satisfied until you do this or go there. Clothing catalogs point out changes in fashion; linen stores introduce the latest seasonal colors. The message to keep up is relentless. The push for conformity creates attitudes of dissatisfaction and entitlement.

With the explosion in the availability of consumer credit, which has encouraged conspicuous consumption, attitudes of entitlement have become all too standard. At every turn it seems something or someone is fanning the flames of entitlement in our lives—and our children's lives too. Attitudes of entitlement, both yours and your children's, are an enemy that, if not dealt with, will surely sabotage your efforts to develop financial confidence in your kids.

Live an Understated Lifestyle

A frugal lifestyle, where you live below your means, is the best environment in which to raise kids. When children observe their parents consuming carefully, making wise spending decisions, choosing not to buy the biggest and the best, and not living on credit, they begin to assimilate those values.

Rather than always telling your kids, "We can't afford that," a better response is, "We don't choose to spend our money in that way." This sends the message that even though you may be able to afford to buy what your kids want, too much consumption is not good. Telling your kids you cannot afford this or that or to go here or there tells them only one thing: We are poor. If we weren't so poor, we could have this or that and go here or there. That sends the message that money is the key to happiness—if we just had enough money, we could be perfectly happy. Kids worry about being poor, and if you just leave it at "We can't afford it," you run the risk of sending them the wrong message or causing them to worry about things children ought not to worry about.

By telling your children, "We don't choose to spend our money on that," you send a positive message that you have money but make intelligent choices about how to spend it. Don't aspire to look like the most affluent family in the neighborhood by living as if you have a big bank balance. If yours is a one-earner family, don't live the lifestyle of your two-paycheck friends. Rather than constantly striving to keep up, look for ways to downshift. Don't live to consume and don't base your self-worth on your net worth.

Discover the Real Need

Attitudes of entitlement are often a symptom. There are times parents get so caught up in the frantic pace of the daily grind that they don't realize that most of what children need cannot be bought. Children need time and attention, conversation with their parents, and guidance. They need to know they are significant and valuable and that someone is interested in their moral development. Maybe it's not the new outfit or the electronic device that's the real issue after all.

Become a Giving Family

The best antidote for attitudes of entitlement is to give away the very thing you crave. Giving takes our eyes off ourselves and our insatiable desires. It works in children as well. Get your kids involved in supporting your church's outreach ministries and community food pantries. Give to a missionary family that has children of similar ages to yours. "Adopt" an orphan in a third-world country. There are so many ways your family can become intentional givers. Giving takes effort and requires commitment, but the benefits both in personal and spiritual growth and in tearing down attitudes of entitlement will be invaluable.

Limit Shopping

Stay away from malls and throw mail-order catalogs in the recycle bin the minute they show up. As much as possible, do your necessary shopping solo—without kids. Overexposing children to the grocery store, the mall, or the warehouse club inevitably creates desire.

Let the shopping trips that include the children be for a specific purpose, not simply to wander around to see what kind of desire you can create. When the kids are with you in a store, make sure you follow the debt-proof rules:

• Shop with a list.

• Shop with cash.

• Find what you've come to buy.

• Leave.

Limit Television Viewing

Monitor children's television viewing. For very young children, select noncommercial viewing. Find a way to let the kids help limit their TV time.

Here's an idea. Let the kids decorate popsicle sticks or tongue depressors. Use them to keep track of earned television viewing time. One stick equals thirty minutes of TV time. Devise a plan for the kids to earn sticks by reading books, picking up toys, etc. Make a rule: no sticks, no TV. Talk with your kids about commercial advertisements and the real message. Teach them to see through messages that suggest if you drink a certain soft drink or buy a certain brand of makeup you'll be like the celebrity in the ad.

Teach your kids to play the game "What's the Value?" (could also be called "What's the Lie?"). After each commercial, ask them what value the ad was trying to sell. Was it pleasure, possessions, or prestige (prestige could also be power or popularity)? The first person to answer correctly wins. She gets bonus points if she can explain the reasoning behind the response.

Commercial advertisements create false needs in all of us, but particularly in children. Children are literal in their thinking. Begin looking at this commercialized world through your children's very literal eyes and ways of thinking. You'll find yourself "believing" all kinds of lies.

If you have children in schools that carry Channel One, rather than forbid them to participate, prepare them. Have them write down and then report to you the commercials they see each day along with their assessment of the lies the commercials were trying to tell. Were they pleasure, possessions, or prestige? If you have any influence in the school, suggest that "What's the Value?" might be an excellent follow-up to the daily presentation in class. Everything you do to get your children thinking and making their own evaluations about what the world is trying to make them believe will hasten the day they are debt-proofed.

Consider TV-free periods. Start with a day; go to a full week. It's an enlightening experience.

Find Alternatives

Your goal in tearing down attitudes of entitlement is to direct your children's attention and desires away from the commercialization of their lives. Spending less time at the mall and more time in wholesome venues will support that goal.

Create a desire in your children to go to the library. Capitalize on the fact that most libraries allow us to borrow books, videos, etc., rather than having to buy them. Push the community aspect of sharing and supporting literature. Attend the special presentations. If your library has a membership fee (many do these days), gladly purchase a membership and then use it.

Trade mall time for park time. Make it a point to visit all the parks in your city. Find the hiking trails and bike paths.

Call the local Chamber of Commerce to find the factories or manufacturing plants in your area that conduct tours. Make a list of all the places you can be tourists in your own town.

Maintain Financial Privacy

Parents should never tell their children how much money they earn. Whether you are at the poverty level or well-heeled, your children should not be privy to your annual income. Kids don't need that information. When they have it, they don't know how to interpret it. One woman shared with me how as a child her entire attitude about life and material things changed the day she learned her father made a six-figure income. Everything shifted when she decided they were the richest people in the world and she deserved whatever she wanted.

If your child asks how much you earn, answer back with the question "Why do you want to know?" If the child worries you'll be homeless tomorrow, assure her that is not the case. If your child asks so he can brag to his friends about how rich he is, the answer should be something like, "That is Mommy and Daddy's private information." It is okay for parents to have financial privacy.

Rethink Birthdays

A child's birthday should be the best day of the whole year. Set a spending limit ahead of time and keep to the cash-only rule. Think of ways to make the child feel special that don't involve gifts and lots of money. Decorate his room with balloons. Make it a no-chores day. Treat her like a princess for a full 24 hours.

If you have a traditional party, keep a lid on the quantity of gifts as much as possible. I know of families who designate certain birthdays the big milestones (five, ten, sixteen, eighteen), having parties those years and opting for family celebrations in the years in between. But of all the times that you want to convey to your children how wonderful they are and how thankful you are for them, it's on their birthdays. You can do that without spending a great deal of money.

Use the Debt-Proof Plan

By far the best antidote for attitudes of entitlement is to put your children on a debt-proof plan. Going "on salary" at about age ten will put the brakes on attitudes of entitlement as your child begins to control his or her own desires and perspectives, from the inside out.

Clearly, attitudes of entitlement are a serious problem. But they are not terminal. Diligent parents who are willing to be consistent examples and limit setters will find success in tearing down attitudes that have the potential to do great harm.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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