Amy Choate-Nielsen: The age of entitlement: Selfishness is rampant, but can be corrected, experts say

Published: Sunday, Aug. 28 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

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PROVO — Jo Greer's treasure box isn't quite what it used to be.

It still looks like it once belonged to a pirate — still has the wooden lid and metal hinges — and it still has a sticker or a piece of gum inside, depending on the day.

But what was once a coveted birthday honor in Greer's preschool classroom is now somewhat of a dud. These days, when the birthday boy or girl gets to open the box and claim the treasure inside, the response is increasingly indignant: "I don't want any of that," the 4-year-olds say. "Is that all you have?"

"The gratitude is vanishing," Greer says.

This change in behavior is a symptom of a greater phenomenon that psychologists, family experts, sociologists and scholars say is gripping the world. Now, more than ever, entitlement — the idea that "I should get everything I want when I want it, even if I haven't worked for it" — is rearing its ugly head.

But the problem isn't just in preschool classrooms; it's in homes, high schools, offices and even the highest levels of government. It impacts the way children treat their parents and siblings, interferes with education and can contribute to a lifetime of unhappiness, financial instability and disdain for work, experts say.

Yet despite the massive groundswell of the "gimmies," there is a way to course-correct — though that process often requires self-introspection, a bit of humility and an acceptance that parents contribute to the problem.

Evolution of entitlement

When students walk into Greer's classroom wearing T-shirts that say things such as "Here comes trouble," that's exactly what she thinks.

She's been teaching for 20 years — from preschool to high school — but every year, the attitudes she encounters just keep getting worse.

"Ten years ago, the children were more respectful; more prone to say 'please' and 'thank you,' " Greer says. "It's no longer an expectation that children say these things coming from home — the social development is going backward."

Several generations ago the belief was that "children were to be seen and not heard," says Jane Nelson, licensed marriage, family and child counselor and author of the "Positive Discipline" series. Subsequent generations wised up and realized that was fairly cruel and by the 1960s, it had swung to the other extreme.

Psychologists were pushing the idea that children needed a strong concept of self to have a happy and successful life. Parents wanted their children to succeed, so they told them they were special, important and "number one," says Jim Fay, a former teacher, co-author of "Parenting with Love and Logic" and co-founder of The Love and Logic Institute, which parents can visit at www.loveandlogic.com/articles.html.

That approach gave way to a movement that preached the value of a child-centered environment, where the child is the most important member of the family and the parents offer lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement, no matter what the child is doing.

"That worked really well until the kids would say 'no' when the parents expected the kid to do something," Fay says. "The kids would get mad, so now parents are saying to themselves, 'Wait a minute, my kids are supposed to be happy. My job is to make sure they are comfortable, and now he's unhappy, so I must be doing something wrong.' What happened was a gradual disintegration of parental confidence."

Without confidence, parents cave when their children want the same possessions, loose standards or special treatment their friends have — and the cycle of entitlement continues as children then become parents and repeat the same mistakes.

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