By Marlis Jansen with Lily Boyar
In families of wealth, it is common to worry about entitlement. With greater resources comes a natural concern about whether children will appreciate what they have. Will they become spoiled? Will they be motivated? There is no “owner’s manual” for raising well-adjusted children.
The term “entitlement” has a negative connotation, but it’s actually incredibly nuanced. We believe all humans are entitled to having their voice heard, for example. Everyone should feel empowered to speak up and share their ideas. However, in this post, we’re interested in exploring the side of entitlement that commonly receives negative attention. This is often defined as the behavior of someone who believes that they deserve something they haven’t worked to achieve. While many would judge that person negatively, we see it differently.
So, what does it mean when you recognize entitled behavior in your family? Is your child simply a bad apple?
We see entitled behavior as an indication of a deep internal conflict. Perhaps it indicates a disconnect between a person and his or her own sense of purpose It might indicate performance anxiety. Maybe a child exhibiting entitled behavior is wrestling with his or her own place within the family. Or perhaps they are uncertain about how they will meaningfully contribute to the world around them. They might worry that they can never “measure up” to their parent’s achievements. These fears and insecurities can arise at any age.
Humans are intrinsically motivated to find meaning. In fact, research suggests that Americans would give up 23% of their future earnings (an average of $21,000 a year) for meaningful and purposeful work. We would also put in an extra hour of work every day and stay at our jobs for at least 7.5 months longer if we felt our work had greater value.
If we desire meaning and purpose in our lives, then the behavior we are identifying as “entitled” must be a reaction to something deeper. By rethinking the concept of entitlement, we open up the possibility to empower our kids and support their growth with solutions that better address the true source of their behavior.
Here are a few ideas for addressing entitled behavior and supporting the rising generation in their personal development:
Teach your kids to develop “creative confidence.”
In financially successful families, it can be intimidating for the next generation to know how to contribute. They might worry about whether their passions and pursuits will live up to your vision of success. They might be afraid of failure, which can paralyze them, keeping them from gaining insight into their skills, passions, and potential.
As parents, we hope the next generation will be confident taking risks and contributing to a better world. One of the ways to empower our children to find agency in their own lives is by creating a family culture where failure isn’t a fireable offense; an environment that encourages creativity and experimentation. Tom & David Kelley, authors of Creative Confidence, and founders of IDEO, a global design consultancy, call this “creative confidence.” The philosophy is that creativity is an innate skill that anyone can cultivate through practice. The more we experiment and throw spaghetti at the wall, the easier it is to try new things and bounce back from failure.
It isn’t easy to watch children experiment, knowing they might not succeed. However, failure is an integral part of developing creative confidence. When the rising generation can access creativity, experimentation, and the willingness to stumble, they develop confidence in themselves, along with insights and passions to direct their lives meaningfully.
Understand and articulate your values and purpose as a family.
Families often have well-worn social grooves that define what’s expected and accepted. In these cases, each member has the challenge of finding their own way in a web of expectation. This becomes especially difficult to navigate when a family’s values or principles aren’t explicitly communicated, and discussed. The process of exploring, articulating, and examining shared beliefs and purpose, allows us to find creative ways to express them and live according to what’s most important.
Rodney Zeeb, CEO and Founder of The Heritage Institute, believes one of the ways to identify a family’s core values is through holding regular family meetings. While these meetings might address family business, their most important function is to tend to the “business of being a family.” This provides an opportunity to reinforce relationships and collaboration, practice multi-generational communication, and participate in shaping the family’s collective identity.
Show your kids you’re a person, not just a provider.
In families of financial means, it is common for the next generation to feel as though they have large shoes to fill. They can have a distorted view of their parents based on assumptions about their financial success. When you allow your child to see you as a person, with your quirks and idiosyncrasies, they are able to gain a more accurate sense of who you really are.
Parents can do this by talking to their kids about how they developed their character. Perhaps you might share stories from your childhood and the lessons you learned. Or maybe you walk your kids through an important decision you’ve made and explain how you arrived at that choice. By inviting the next generation to share in your mistakes and other learning moments, you are acting as their mentor and helping teach and guide them in their own self-discovery. We recommend that families document their family stories so that many generations can know them and benefit from them.
Talk about money as a family.
In wealthy families, many parents don’t talk to their children about money because they’re worried it will stifle their motivation. However, entitled behavior can be perpetuated if the next generation doesn’t have a clear understanding or appreciation for where their family’s money comes from, and more importantly, what it took to get there.
The process of talking about money with the rising generation can guide them away from assumptions and misdirection that can fuel entitlement. Kids can’t understand numbers and figures without having a context for their emotional and practical implications.
A few ways to do this:
- Share stories about your family legacy and how it influenced your values.
- Talk about money as only one form of wealth.
- Discuss the value of sharing wealth and the different ways of doing it. If your children will receive an inheritance, for example, this can be one way to connect this idea to their financial circumstances.
- Sit down with older children or adults and go over typical expenses, such as a car payment, mortgage, or household bills. Being transparent about money gives the rising generation an opportunity to foster a sense of appreciation and a realistic perspective of what they have.
By talking openly with your children, you are helping them construct their own ideas and values around money, reducing the chances that they will behave in an entitled way.
Give children responsibilities.
Giving the next generation the ability to contribute to the family is essential. However, in families of wealth, there is often a high level of support. Julie Lythcott-Haims, the Dean of Freshmen at Stanford and the author of How to Raise an Adult is a big proponent of giving children manageable responsibilities. Lythcott-Haims believes one of the ways to predict success in adulthood is by whether kids were given chores. By giving our children responsibilities, they begin to shift their perspective from themselves to the needs of others. Chores give kids a sense of accountability and allow them to contribute to the well-being of the family.
Reducing entitled behavior means shifting your perspective from expectation to appreciation. Practicing gratitude gives us an opportunity to reflect on what we have, rather than focusing on what we want.
Here are some ways to encourage gratitude in your family:
- Make a daily ritual of discussing what you’re thankful for as a family during mealtime.
- Teach your kids to write thank-you notes. Entitlement can make people feel as though others are in service of their needs. However by regularly writing thank you cards, they acknowledge and recognize the care, time, and energy others contribute to their life.
- Encourage giving and volunteering as a family. When children grow up in an environment of wealth, they might assume that others live the same way. However, volunteering exposes them to people, places, and ideas that can enrich their worldview.
Encourage the next generation to explore their own passions and interests.
Understanding your own values, interests, and passions is a critical part of forming your identity. Without a connection to these fundamentals, , it can be challenging to develop a sense of agency in your own life.
As parents, we can support our children by investing in their interests. This doesn’t necessarily mean making a financial contribution. You can lend your time to make signs for your child’s lemonade stand or help them rehearse their lines for a school play. Or perhaps you can help your young adult write a business plan. Your contribution can be expressed through time, energy, and emotional support. By doing this, parents signal to their kids that they are supported and valued. More importantly, it promotes a sense of accountability, a key contributor to curbing entitled behavior.
Remember, entitlement isn’t a fixed state.
Our culture views entitlement as synonymous with being “spoiled” or “selfish.” And in some ways, we’re all vulnerable to these messages. However, judgment and shame don’t provide fertile soil for growth. It’s important to remember that entitlement isn’t a permanent mark or stain on someone’s character, but perhaps a useful indicator of a deeper need for purpose and connection. Rather than simply absorbing the broader cultural message (that your child is spoiled if they exhibit entitled behavior), we can actually change the way you respond to our children, which will most likely change the way they view themselves, us, and their responsibility to others. If we can remove our own judgment, of ourselves and of our children, we have an opportunity to help them develop happy and purposeful lives.
Kelley, Tom Kelley and David. “ Reclaim Your Creative Confidence.” Harvard Business Review, 1 Aug. 2014, hbr.org/2012/12/reclaim-your-creative-confidence.
Lythcott-Haims, Julie. “How to Raise Successful Kids — without over-Parenting.” TED, 2015, www.ted.com/talks/julie_lythcott_haims_how_to_raise_successful_kids_without_over_parenting?language=en.
Wehrli, Ashley, “Me, Me, Me,” Moms.com, 07 January 2021, https://www.moms.com/entitled-child-signs/