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.
This cycle hits working parents especially hard, says Nelson, who notes they often try to make up for the lack of time with their children by giving them things or quickly solving their problems.
"I'm one who believes that you meet all their needs, but you don't meet all their wants," Nelson said. "But if they always get everything they want, of course they feel entitled. If their parents give them that, then of course they become obnoxious."
Leslee Miller, a licensed clinical social worker in Sugarhouse in Salt Lake City, sees the entitlement mentality all the time.
It comes from a low-frustration tolerance, she says, "the idea that I should never be frustrated, life should be easy. And it's not just in kids."
Entitled adults exude the belief that "everything is everybody else's fault," "the world is unfair to me" and question "why is this happening to me?" — "as if hard things shouldn't be happening to (them) — when that's just a really healthy part of life," she says.
Wake of problems
The attitude of entitlement doesn't just mean that kids and teens believe they should have everything they want when they want; it's also that they believe they're entitled not to do some things — like work.
"People who have this mind-set often hold a negative view of hard work — they put it down and ridicule it," wrote James Lehman, a renowned child behavioral therapist who died in 2010. "They think they deserve things they haven't earned, and they can develop contempt for people who work to earn things.
"I believe that a false sense of entitlement affects every strata of society today. Kids who grow up this way don't want the jobs that are available because they have the belief that they're entitled to something better without having to make an effort. So that false sense of entitlement prohibits them from getting the work skills and the social skills they need to start at the bottom and work their way up."
Such an attitude often manifests itself in the home, where children want mom to make dinner, wash their soccer uniforms and help them with homework, but they grumble and stall when asked to unload the dishwasher or fold the laundry.
Yet it's this work — despite society's labels of menial and mundane — that binds families together and strengthens children, says Kathleen Bahr, a retired BYU professor who spent her career researching the importance of family work.
"Family work links people," she wrote in an essay on this topic. "On a daily basis, the tasks we do to stay alive provide us with endless opportunities to recognize and fill the needs of others. Family work is a call to enact love, and it is a call that is universal."
Without opportunities to sacrifice and serve, particularly in a family, children can become selfish, impatient and narcissistic adults. These adults also often deal with a fear of failure — because they've always been shielded from frustration — and financial instability, because they feel entitled to comforts they can't afford.
Marriages will also suffer if one person expects their spouse to give them everything they're used to getting, or if one partner doesn't want to pull their share of the load.
So instead of working on their relationships, "when things get rough, they just bail," says Don Herrin, professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah.
Even the hostility in recent political disputes shows signs of an entitled generation, Herrin says. Inflated promises and progress in tackling problems such as debt are crippled by individuals' inability to accept sacrifice or compromise. The growing trend is worrisome to parenting experts Richard and Linda Eyre, who just completed a book about battling entitlement called "The Entitlement Trap — How to Rescue Your Child with a New Family System of Choosing, Earning and Ownership."
"The thing we worry about most is the kids, because they are the ones paying the debt," Richard Eyre said during a recent interview about the new book. "They will be stuck with the bills for our retirement, Social Security and Medicare and the national debt we're ringing up, but on a macro level, we're worried that they're growing up in a society where the model is 'I need to have it right now.'"
With that entitlement attitude, children aren't grateful for what has been given to them because they think it's deserved. In the end, giving in to demanding behaviors is not just discouraging for parents and frustrating to teachers, it's also damaging to the child.
"It's a guaranteed prescription for unhappiness," says Love and Logic's Fay. "Because nothing will ever be their fault, and they can never have enough stuff."
Discussion over dollars
Materialism is one of the biggest factors driving entitlement, experts say. Kids today are nearly drowning in a wave of consumerism that leads them to believe they need the newest gadget to keep up with their friends. Thus it's no surprise that parents far too often hear, "I want this," "I have to have it" and "Everybody else has one."
To combat this, many parents give their children allowances or assign monetary values to chores, requiring that they save up for their own toys and clothes to learn money management and the value of patience.
Nelson believes children should be given allowances — unrelated to chore completion — so when they ask for something at the store, parents can teach the child what it means to save. Or perhaps they can create an arrangement where if the child saves half, the parents will chip in the other half.
"If they want it bad enough, they'll learn they have to earn their money," she said. "They learn delayed gratification."
Other parents choose not to pay their children for chores or even give an allowance. Instead, they expect children to participate in chores just because they're a member of the family, and when needs arise, the family assesses them together.
Bahr remembers growing up like this, working with her 12 siblings alongside her father on the family's two-and-a-half-acre farm in northern Utah. When money came in, it wasn't dad's money, she says. It was family money and "we were as entitled to spend it as my mother was."
When the children needed notebooks, clothes or even toys, they brought it up in a family meeting and were given the money to buy what they needed. And when someone else's needs were more pressing, the siblings learned how to sacrifice for each other.
She believes that when kids are paid to do chores, "(they) don't learn to do things out of the goodness of their heart. If we as adults impose that on our kids' thinking that we're teaching them how to manage money, what we're doing is robbing them of the lessons of learning how to work and serve with each other."
In an attempt to evaluate what impact paying for chores had on children, Kristine Manwaring did her master's thesis on the topic, interviewing 30 families, half of whom had monetary systems in place.
"We found that the methods they used to teach their kids about money and work actually had unintended consequences," said Manwaring, who formerly taught in the School of Family Life at BYU. "The families who felt strongly about paying their kids for work and trying not to (promote) entitlement had kids who would only work when they wanted to buy something. So parents were in the awkward position of encouraging their children to buy things, which promoted materialism and a fixation on money beyond what a child at certain age levels would have."
Her research also showed that in families where children were paid for chores, they were less likely to help siblings or other family members without financial incentive.
She remembers one family where the grandparents asked their grandsons to come help them with yard work.
"The boys responded, 'How much?' " Manwaring recalled. "It horrified the parents, but the kids had been trained.
"We came away from the research with (the understanding) that the more you can minimize money, the less entitled your kids will be," Manwaring said, adding that the topic still needs to be studied in greater detail.
Stopping the selfishness
Jennifer Young loves watching the excitement in her young foster care kids' eyes when her teenage kids come home from school and scoop them up for snuggles.
"It doesn't have to be foster care, but anytime you're busy serving, it's a great way to get out of the 'me-me-me' (mode)," says the Kaysville mother of five biological children and dozens more foster kids. Her family's participation in the foster care program has helps her children stay grounded.
"We have something in common," she says. "Something that we're all working toward every minute of every day. (My kids know) we're trying to help these (foster) kids."
Teaching children to care for other people is essential to warding off feelings of entitlement, Herrin says. Looking out for another's needs is fundamental to neighborhood and community relationships — not just family success.
"We don't get anywhere when we are our own highest priority," Herrin says. "It doesn't work very well."
But parents need not despair if their children show signs of entitlement. To start, they need to make sure they're setting the type of example they want their children to follow. Then, show lots of love, encourage hard work and give children quality time, rather than things.
When entitled teens act out, Miller says parents need to sit them down and say, "I haven't done you a favor. I've let you get away with a lot of stuff and haven't allowed the natural consequences of life to come. There are going to be some unpleasant things in life and this is one of them, me saying that you are grounded for a week and you're not going to use the car. Oh, it's prom night? I'm going to hold my own. I usually give in, but we're going to do it the right way now."
It may not be pleasant now, but it will pay off in the long run, she said. And hopefully it will be the first step toward curbing the trend of entitlement.
"If I were a young parent right now, I could look out and say, 'This is dangerous — there is an (entitlement) epidemic out there, and it could impact the world negatively,'" Fay says. "But it doesn't have to happen to my kids. My kids can float to the top."
Back in Greer's classroom, it's not all bad news. Yes, some students are self-absorbed and unkind, but others are in the process of floating to heights she's never seen. One little 4-year-old boy, with big ears and a bigger smile, is particularly impressive, she says. He helps people off the floor, holds doors open and includes everyone.
"When that sort of stuff happens, we need to celebrate," Greer says. "That little guy wasn't my best alphabet guy, but he was by far the most socially skilled person, and he is going to go far."