Battling the Forces of Entitlement

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An interview with Dr. Christine Carter

With arms crossed, my three-foot-high four year old son informs me in no uncertain terms, he wants-wants-wants, right now. The current want: apple juice uncut by water, but tomorrow it will be something else.  He clings to those desires like a birthright! Visions of Veruca Salt from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” play vividly before my eyes as “darling Veruca” prances snottily about a roost of gold egg laying geese singing “I Want It Now.” My son is not alone in his demanding desire. Is this an affliction of our times or the nature of children this age? We turned to Dr. Christine Carter, sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s The Greater Good Science Center, for insight on taming the inner-Veruca of desire and entitlement in our kids. — Julia Posey, Web Content Producer, TMC

Why do so many young children seem so entitled?   What’s really going on?

Gratitude is one of those emotions that naturally arise in situations of scarcity. It’s actually kind of good news in a way that many children seem entitled now because it points to a real abundance that didn’t use to exist. There is a paradox, I call it the abundance paradox, that the more we have the more likely it is that we or our children will feel disappointed when we don’t get what we want rather than grateful when we do.

How do you overcome entitlement?

The way to counter entitlement is by teaching kids how to express their gratitude. Most parents don’t think of gratitude as a skill that they need to teach their kids and practice with them. Gratitude is not something that comes naturally. It takes practice. Until you learn to express that emotion, it’s a lot less likely that you will feel it.

Young children don’t necessarily know the difference between a want and a need. Is there an effective way to teach that?

For younger children, we can always model it by talking about the difference, “I really want this, but I guess I don’t really need it.” A lot of the time, the problem starts with us as parents not knowing or clearly articulating the differences between our wants and our needs. It’s not our fault. We live in this culture and society that is so driven by advertising and the stirring up of desire. The air we breathe intends to make us want things and make us think that we need them in order to be happy. It’s up to us to know that we are being duped constantly and our children are being duped constantly as well. What we need to be happy is very different than what we might desire for gratification.

Receiving gifts is very exciting, especially to young children. How do you teach children that giving is as good as getting?

Involve your kids in giving as much as possible:

  • Encourage them to imagine other people’s positive emotions in receiving.

We know that if we say to a child, for example, “we should give our toys to poor kids because it’s the right thing to do,” there’s no part of their brain that wants to do that. That’s not an exciting way for a young child to give. Young children experience something else, like potential loss of what they currently have. But if you say to them, “I think we should give some of our toys to poor kids (or kids who are in the hospital or whatever your family chooses) because imagine how happy they will be when they receive toys that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.” You can actually use that compassionate imagination to envision the good that you’re doing and the kindness that you are doing.

  • Make the act of giving personal to your child.

You can say, “I’m going to put a bag with your name on it, so these will be the toys that are from you. Imagine the kids who get this bag, filled with toys from you, think about how happy they will be.” You will see it triggers something in kids. It gives them a sense of real power. It’s an authentic power to bring joy to somebody else.

Sounds like you’re modeling empathy.

Yes, I’m always thinking of ways that we can foster kid’s compassionate imagination because that is a real foundation for happiness in life and will always counter feelings of entitlement.

How can you teach a child to be happy for what they have rather than wanting what they don’t?

Families need to have gratitude practices, plural, I think, where there are routines in your households that evoke the emotion of gratitude. At my house, we share what we are grateful for before supper. It’s not that we only talk about good things at dinnertime; it’s just that we have this habit of going around the table and saying what we are grateful for before eating. We also do it at the end of the day, when we share three good things about our days.

My kids started doing this as young as two. By practicing gratitude, you come to see the world through gratitude filled glasses. For my daughters, instead of constantly seeing what they are disappointed that they don’t have or what they want, they’re scanning their environment constantly for what they are going to say at dinner time or for what one of their good things is. It changes our perception.

Why does gratitude counteract feelings of entitlement?

It’s very difficult to feel entitled to something and grateful for it at the same time. It’s hard to hold onto those two ways of perceiving. There’s this famous experiment where participants are counting the number of times that people wearing white shirts are passing the ball  they focus completely on people in white shirts and ignore people in black shirts. In the middle of it, somebody dressed as a gorilla walks out into the middle of the experiment, pounds his chest and walks back out again. More than half of the people did not see the gorilla because they were focusing on the people with the white shirts. That’s a metaphor for how gratitude counteracts entitlement. When you are noting what you’re grateful for, when you’re counting your blessings, it’s also very hard to count the things that hassle you or that you’re disappointed about or you feel you should have gotten. You’re thinking about the larger world and the gifts that it has presented you and the abundance that’s already there. It’s the direction you are looking. You’re either looking down at your feet at the gravel or you’re looking at the wide open sky. And when you’re looking at the wide open sky you’re not going to see as much of the gravel.

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. She is author of the book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and a blog.

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