I recently saw a clever commercial that appeals directly to the members of a “me-first” generation. It was an ad for a huge, 3D, LED TV with wireless capabilities, crystal-clear picture, and crisp sound. I think it even had a built-in cappuccino maker. Obviously, the price of this TV was higher than your average monthly mortgage. But the announcer hawking this incredible piece of electronic craftsmanship was saying, “You work hard all week. So treat yourself! You DESERVE this TV!”
At first I was taken aback. Why would anyone think they truly deserve to have a gigantic flat-screen TV? But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Look around; we hear messages and advertisements like this all the time. And they work, because (let’s face it), we are all born narcissists. Newborn infants don’t care if their parents haven’t slept in 48 hours—they’re hungry now! In preschool, one of the first things children need to learn is how to share, because they all think every toy is theirs. Flash-forward a few more years, and you find teenagers that never outgrew this entitlement mentality. Many young people still wake up thinking, “What is everyone going to do for me, today?”
Our world is tainted by sin, and it’s fertile ground for the roots of selfishness and narcissism. Teens are told, “You deserve that latest iPhone!” “Your parents should give you a car to drive!” Or “your happiness is all that is important.” And what we wind up with is young adults who show two very unhealthy traits: selfishness and a sense of entitlement. If this sounds familiar, it could be time to deal with the self-centered tendencies of your teenager.
While walking around our Heartlight campus, going about my daily errands, one of the girls in our program stopped me. “Hey, why haven’t you met with me this week?” she quizzed me. “You need to meet with meet with me every week!”
I said calmly, “Sweetie, I enjoy talking with you. But I don’t have to meet with you every week. And I sure don’t “need” to meet with you. I want to, but I don’t “need” to.”
“Yes you do!” she shot back.
At this point, I realized I was talking with a young lady that was somewhat entitled. Entitled. So, I decided to give her a principle that I have shared with many other kids and their parents. “Sweetheart, I owe you nothing, but I want to give you everything.” I really don’t think she realized that her efforts (a display of her entitled perspective of life) were not drawing me to her; the display was actually pushing me away. I wanted her to learn that she didn’t have to demand, that she doesn’t have to “push” to get her way, and that my purpose that day was not to “bend” to her every need. I wanted her to know that her entitled mindset just doesn’t work with me and to the bigger issue, I wanted her to know that she was worth spending time with. I wanted to. But I didn’t want to out of obligation; I wanted to because she was valuable enough to spend time with. Again, my comment of “I owe you nothing, but want to give you everything” was to stop her entitlement, and begin her feeling valued.
Could it be that our privileged kids are creations of our own making? More than once I have bought extravagant gifts for my kids, thinking I was showering them with love, only to find that I was feeding their attitudes of entitlement. Of course, an unexpected gift here and there is a great way to make your children feel cared for. But done too often, kids begin to think that their parents are obligated to grant their every desire. While I saw these good things as gifts, they saw them as rights. This might sound harsh, but as parents, it’s time we stop giving everything to our kids! Of course, we will meet our child’s needs for housing, clothes, food and basic necessities. But you are not obligated to buy your daughter a car, fund your son’s college, or pay your teen’s phone bills. By providing for every one of his or her wants, we are actually robbing our children of their ability to foster independence and shake off their attitude of entitlement.
It’s important to sit down with your teen and communicate what you will do and what you will not do for them going forward. “Son, you’re 28 years old. It’s time you did your own laundry!” Or maybe, “You’re at an age where you can get up for school on your own. I’m not going to come in and wake you up anymore.” Also, it’s okay to enact a compromise. “Honey, if you pay for the car insurance, I’ll handle the gas.” Every year, wean your teen from some of their reliance on mom and dad, and put them on a path to independence and personal responsibility. Break your teen’s sense of entitlement by stopping it at its source.
Part of curbing your teen’s narcissistic tendencies requires resisting the urge to rescue them. Don’t bail your son or daughter out when their entitlement gets them in trouble! By that I mean that as moms and dads, we don’t swoop in and clean our son’s room when he’s left it a complete mess. We don’t pay for the car insurance when our son used the money to buy new basketball shoes instead. It’s difficult to hold back from saving our kids when they get in trouble. However, mistakes are an effective way of teaching our teens the dangers of being self-involved and selfish.
For a country, a society, even a home to succeed, there has to be a balance of give and take. Everyone has to contribute to make the system work. And we should be instilling in our teens an awareness of this fact as they make their way out into the world. Our society, or our family doesn’t owe us a career, a home, a car or the next new gadget. These are things that we have to work for and earn. So don’t shy away from assigning chores and responsibilities for your kids right now. At the Heartlight campus I give work for the kids to accomplish. Whether it’s raking pine needles, feeding horses, cleaning up the rooms, or working building fence line and digging holes, I want to give my students the gift of work. Using their hands and minds to achieve routine tasks provides them with a feeling of responsibility and independence and allows them to experience the pride of making a contribution. They get to see the benefit of working hard and giving back. Mom and Dad, don’t feel that giving your teen work will hurt them or make you a bad parent. It’s really the best gift you can give your kids, and one day, they will be grateful for it.
I also encourage every family to dedicate time together to give back to the community. That may mean serving dinner at the homeless shelter once a week. It might mean taking a summer to help build houses for the poor. Maybe it involves going on a short mission trip across the border. Whatever it looks like, model for your kids the value of caring for the less fortunate. And here’s a pet peeve I have. So many times I hear of groups of kids traveling the world to help others when the real motivation is for their own experience. Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe in mission trips. But, I believe that our “mission” might just be next door. Or the older couple down the street. Or that group of “bad kids” in your neighborhood that really, all they need, is someone to care for them. Or maybe it’s the teachers at your child’s school, or a single mom that needs help with her autistic child. Just think what it would look like for a individuals in a men’s group to commit to help a single mom one afternoon a week….for the next 7 years, to help her with her son or daughter? That’s a mission project! You don’t have to travel on a plane to find a mission project. Helping others has an amazing way of changing your child’s perspective, and combat his (or her) sense of entitlement.
I guarantee that when your children encounter poverty for the first time, they will be more thankful and grateful for the blessings in their own lives. If you start now, you can help them form a lifelong habit of using what they have to bless others.
It’s not impossible to train the narcissism out of our kids. But we have to push back against an inherent sense of entitlement. Many teenagers are growing up with the belief that the world owes them everything—from college, to cars, to jobs and a comfortable lifestyle. But instead of constantly wanting more, God’s Word tells us that we should be “overflowing with thankfulness” (Colossians 2:7). So let’s help our teens break the stranglehold of selfishness by practicing these do’s and don’ts and modeling some gratitude in our own lives.
Truth is, your entitled teen is growing up in a world that we created. In a world of plenty, that we feed constantly. And truth be further told, the way to break a teen’s sense of entitlement is to allow your child to observe, reflect, and experience from your life, what gratefulness and a “mission project” looks like. It’s true that the Christian life is more “caught” than “taught”.
So, what are you doing to do this week to make some of those changes to curb the entitlement in your home?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and 4 grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, 2 llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy. His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with over 2,500 teens, has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.
You can find out more about the Heartlight residential adolescent counseling center at www.HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our Parenting Today’s Teens website at www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org. It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Here you will also find a station near you where you can listen to the Parenting Today’s Teens radio broadcast, or download the podcast of the most recent programs.