Last month, my son dumped his bowl of Cheerios in the trash because I didn't make pancakes. The next week, on pancake day, he refused to eat them because he wanted Cheerios and we didn't have any left (I wonder why we ran out?!).
I was horrified. And furious. I had been putting all this effort into making them nice, healthy breakfasts, and instead of feeling grateful, he felt entitled. I had a spoiled brat on my hands. My greatest fear.
When the horror and fury subsided, I was sad. We'd fallen into the entitlement trap. As frustrating as this experience was, it was a good wakeup call for me. I practice frugality frequently in front of the kids: we give modest Christmas and birthday gifts, I buy used school uniforms, I don't buy the things they beg me for at the store, and I rarely go shopping for anything other than food. But I realized I don't spend enough time talking about my own financial decisions with my children, and I don't talk enough about what things cost.
So I gave my son the "starving children" lecture, made beans and rice for dinner that night, and made a new rule: If the kids complain about a meal, or don't show gratitude for the meal by helping me clean up, the next meal will be beans and rice. (We've had this modest meal several times since.)
I also sat down at the computer with my son and showed him my meal budget. He was blown away at how much groceries cost. We then went through utility bills and talked about what a mortgage is. It was a great start for the ongoing conversations about money that I now realize I need to be having with all of my children.
Entitlement is a first-world problem. And it's an embarrassing problem to admit, because it sounds like we're whining about our good fortune: "It's just so hard to raise kids when we have enough money to buy them things...." But just because we're embarrassed that we spoil our children doesn't mean we should ignore the fact nor let it persist.
This month I went on a quest for an antidote to the raging entitlement epidemic. I gravitated to four main books on the topic, though there are many more great ones out there:
As I was researching, I compiled a list of 12 things we can teach our children so they don't turn into spoiled brats:
The most obvious antidote for entitled kids is just to stop giving them so much stuff. I like to read my kids a book called "Children Just Like Me" about children all around the world. We look at the picture of Edgar from the Philippines and how happy he is with the car he made out of tin cans and old flip-flops. And then we look at the countless toy cars strewn carelessly around my sons' bedroom.
I'm not suggesting we should move out of our houses and into straw huts, or throw out all our kids' toys. But we should be more mindful of how much stuff we buy for ourselves and for our kids.
Ron Lieber, author of "The Opposite of Spoiled," talks about the irony of parents who complain about their spoiled children, when they themselves are largely to blame: "Spoiled by whom? Spoiled by you, Daddy-o!"
Even if we have the money to do so, we don't have to shower it upon our children and buy them whatever they want. Doing without that new toy or phone or gaming system that "every other kid their age has" is a great (free) lesson in scarcity.
This means you have to say no sometimes, and stick to it. In his book, "Smart Money Smart Kids," Dave Ramsey says, "As a parent, let your yes be yes and your no be no. No is a complete sentence. It doesn't need an explanation. Have integrity. Stick to your answer."
Another opportunity to teach scarcity is when a kid loses or breaks something. "Don't lecture, scold, and then grudgingly buy a replacement. If you do, your child will learn that life is a drama in which others are always waiting in the wings, on hand to fix, repair, and replace the props they have broken." (Wendy Mogel, "The Blessing of a B Minus") Sometimes when it's gone, it's gone.
While you have a lot of control over how much your children have, you can't really control how they feel about it. You can, however, model and teach them to be content with what they have.
Ramsey offers a great definition of contentment: "Content people may not have the best of everything, but they make the best of everything." He says, "Never let a child utter the words, 'I will be happy when...' Contentment isn't a destination...[it] is a manner of traveling. It's an attitude of peace and joy where you are, even while you are working to be somewhere else."
Ramsey cautions us to watch for signs of jealousy and envy, and "teach your child to celebrate the blessings of others and develop goals to achieve similar blessings."
Identifying the sources of discontent, such as peer pressure, marketing, or just our materialistic culture, can be the key to abolishing it. Ramsey suggests, "Find where your kids are getting the messages that cause the meltdowns and cut off the messenger--whether it's TV, the internet, video games, friends, or carpool buddies."
All four books identify gratitude as one of the main antidotes to entitlement. Several of the authors suggested ways to formalize gratitude routines in our houses, such as listing things we're grateful for as part of a bedtime or mealtime routine, or stopping to say a blessing on the food before we eat. (Even if you're not religious, Lieber still suggests saying a routine 'thank you' before eating.)
We can also model gratitude for our kids. Mogel says, "Even if we manage to get our children to stop asking for so many things, they still won't learn how to be grateful unless they see us practicing gratitude."
Rachel Cruze, daughter of Dave Ramsey and co-author of "Smart Money Smart Kids," explains that there's a difference between kids being spoiled and being blessed. "If [your kids] recognize that everything they have represents the love and care of their parents, then you know they have the right spirit of gratitude and appreciation. They're blessed."
Generosity follows nicely on the heels of gratitude. If kids are grateful for what they have they'll want to spread the love. This can range from simple acts like donating goods or money to volunteering in the community to humanitarian service abroad.
Both Lieber and Ramsey recommend that kids keep their money in three jars: one for spending, one for saving, and one for giving. This money is theirs, and they get to decide how to use it, including evaluating how to spend the money in the "Give" jar. This is a great chance for them to identify the needs of others and to evaluate the best ways their money can be a force for good.
Mogel also suggests that you involve your kids when you donate used items. Let them help you decide what to donate and research the different options of where to donate the items.
Generosity extends not just to giving money and goods, but also to giving their time and talents. In their book "The Entitlement Trap," Linda and Richard Eyre talk about trips they took with their family to Bolivia and Kenya to help with local water projects. "We could see their self-centered 'mirrors' on their own lives turning into selfless windows to the wider world."
But while several authors, including Lieber, advocate for humanitarian service abroad, Lieber also warns against "voluntourism," in which teens spend a lot of money to do service far away, when that money might stretch farther closer to home. He tells about a group of teenagers who went on a trip to Africa to build houses, but were so bad at basic construction work that everything they did had to be taken down and redone.
5. Perspective (Wants vs. Needs)
Serving and giving to others has another great side benefit. It gives kids perspective. "When your child is focused on meeting the real needs of others through giving, it becomes harder and harder for him to focus on his wants," Cruze says.
When they realize that someone else needs the clothes they just grew out of, that the meal they just served at the homeless shelter might be the patrons' only meal of the day, or that many children don't even have clean water to drink, they start to internalize the difference between wants and needs.
Lieber says that "[B]y as early as age 5, kids are ready to reckon with the framework that ought to govern a lot of their spending for the rest of their lives: wants and needs (and knowing the difference)." He encourages parents to have kids make their own lists of wants and need and then discuss them.
Mogel's list of things that children are actually entitled to includes: "respectful treatment, healthful foods, shelter from the weather, practical and comfortable clothing, yearly checkups at the pediatrician and the dentist, and a good education. Everything else is a privilege."
6. Hard work
There's controversy about whether you should pay kids for doing their regular chores (which I'll discuss in-depth in an upcoming post, "The Great Allowance Debate") but most parents at least offer opportunities for kids to earn money by doing extra chores. A realistic wage for work helps them understand the value of money, but it also teaches them the value of work.
Cruze says, "Raking leaves, cleaning the house, or being responsible for feeding the pet creates a sense of accomplishment, the sense that they actually did something that they can feel good about."
Ramsey's addition to this topic made me laugh: "Another huge benefit of teaching a child the wonder of work is that she will tend to lose respect for people who refuse to work. Why is this good? It is good because you want your daughter to marry Mr. Right, not Mr. Lazy. We noticed quickly that our daughters (and our son) didn't pursue relationships with people who didn't know how to work. This is great news, because someday you may have grandkids, and you want both of their parents to be productive so your grandkids get to eat."
According to Richard and Linda Eyre, authors of "The Entitlement Trap," the best thing you can do to combat entitlement is to teach your kids the concept of ownership: "Ownership is the lever that can spring kids out of the entitlement trap and motivate them to work for and earn what they want, to take care of things, to fight through difficulty, to face up to their problems, and to decide for themselves what they want from life."
To really own something, children to work for it. Parents give them the opportunity to own their own money by working, and then own the choices of how they spend it. "If they don't feel they own it, they won't work at it or take care of it."
And owning money and material possessions is just the beginning. The Eyres argue that once kids understand this first level of taking responsibility, the concept of ownership extends to their own values, decisions, goals, bodies, education, and relationships."
Once they start earning money and figure out how it works, money is a great tool for teaching them patience and delayed gratification. Cruze suggests instituting an overnight rule (even for yourselves). If you find something you want to buy, wait and see if you still want to spend your money on that item the next day.
And Ramsey and Cruze are adamant about not going into debt for a purchase. They have a no loan policy for their children, with no exceptions. This is a great lesson to teach children young. Cruze says, "[Y]ou are a lot more cautious about a purchase if you take the time to actually save up and pay cash for it. When that happens, you're learning delayed gratification."
Lieber adds, "With enough practice, our kids can develop the kind of restraint that will keep them out of trouble while still allowing them to spend plenty on the things that give them the most joy. "
We can also teach our kids how to make their money stretch. Lieber suggests teaching them frugal practices like using coupons, shopping at the dollar store, and buying used goods.
Lieber came up with a great system to teach kids about the relative costs of different brands. He draws a horizontal line with the word "Need" on one side and 'Want" on the other. On the Need side he writes the cost of a discount brand of a specific item. On the far right, he writes the price of the most expensive name brand. He and his wife then make a vertical line in the middle, with how much they're willing to spend. They call this their "Lands' End Line." Lieber explains, "That means we'd pay whatever Lands' End (my definition of a suitably mid-priced merchant that sells quality clothing) would charge for any clothing needs, even if an item comes from some other designer or shop. Anything with a price to the right of the Lands' End Line would be a want." If his daughter wants to go over the Lands' End Line and buy something more expensive, she has to pay the difference with her own money.
Cruze tells about a time she blew all of her money on a carnival game in the first five minutes of visiting an amusement park. Her parents didn't bail her out and give her more money to spend--she just had to explore the free attractions and watch her siblings carefully spend their money.
Learning this kind of lesson early, while the stakes are low, is really valuable for your kids. Cruze says, "Your children are going to learn some hard lessons when it comes to money. they are going to make some bad decisions, maybe some really bad decisions. But that's okay. That's how we learn."
One of the essential principles kids can learn from money is that in life everything is a trade off. If you choose to spend all your money on gum, it's going to be really hard to save up for that Lego set you want. Lieber suggests involving your kids whey considering your own trade-offs, and explaining why you make the decisions you do. "When kids start earning, we want them to figure out how much they need and to what end."
One of the best things Lieber says parents can do is to talk to their kids about money openly and often. He says, "Some parents are so secretive and paranoid about money that they simply don't discuss it As a result, their kids grow up in homes where the parents never talk about money and never talk about sex, so the kids assume the parents have neither!"
When kids ask you questions that make you feel uncomfortable, answer them honestly and age-appropriately, and encourage them to ask more questions. "'Are we rich?' is a great opportunity for to discuss your family values and what 'rich' means." And he has a great answer for the "Are we poor?" question as well: "People who are poor don't have everything they need, like food and clothing and medicine. We have those things, so we're not poor."
Lieber especially warns about telling our kids, "We can't afford that," or "That's too expensive." It's usually not true, and avoids a more meaningful discussion about the real reasons you don't want to buy something.
He also encourages parents to talk about money worries. If you lose your job, discuss the financial implications honestly, but also talk about your plans for the future. Lieber even advocates telling kids your salary, once they're old enough to understand, and after you've already taught them about monthly bills, insurance, mortgages, taxes, and credit cards.
12. Good Role Models
Above all, our children learn how to manage money from watching us. Mogel gives a great list of behaviors we should avoid to safeguard against materialism:
Try not to let a visit to the mall become your most frequent family outing.
Avoid frequent conversations about how much you want to own things you see advertised on television.
Don't use the word need when you really mean want.
Notice how much you verbalize your envy for other people's things in front of the children.
Try not to let your children see you spending lots of time reading catalogs or shopping online.
Ramsey suggests we also need to find the right balance between taking care of things and caring too much about things. "If your car gets scratched, do you have a complete nervous breakdown? If so, you are sending a message to your child--not about new cars but about the worship of new cars."
When we're making good money decisions, such as saving up for a big purchase instead of putting it on our credit card, we can talk about this with our kids.
And both Lieber and the Eyres talk about the power of telling family stories about money. If your grandparents lived through the depression, talk to your kids about what that was like. Tell rags to riches stories about your ancestors. Share your own stories about both bad and good money decisions. Kids love these stories and learn more from them than empty platitudes.
The more we can teach our children about money in the relatively short time they live with us, the less entitled they will be. Ultimately, Lieber says, "what's most important about an allowance is what will happen when they're too old to get it. We parents are in the adult-making business after all, and we should do everything possible not to squander the opportunity to build grown-up humans with 15 or 20 years of experience handling money."