When we speak about our book "The Entitlement Trap," we often ask our audiences three questions. The first question is, “What is an entitlement attitude and how does it manifest itself in our kids?”
Parents answer that question almost like a choir, because they have all heard their kids saying the same thing: “I deserve to have everything I want and everything my friends have, and I don’t want to have to wait for it or work for it.”
Then we ask, “Why is an entitlement attitude such a big problem?” Again, the answers come quickly: “It takes away children’s incentive; and it robs them of gratitude.”
The third question is the most interesting one: “What would we like to replace entitlement with — what is the opposite of entitlement?” We often make a list of the answers parents give: self-reliance, hard work, motivation, dependability and thankfulness.
But we think the best answer to the question is grit. Grit is a word most parents identify with, and a quality they want to instill in their kids. Grit includes all the other opposites of entitlement.
Our son Talmadge recently finished his master’s degree in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and one of his instructors was Angela Duckworth, author of the best-selling book "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance." Tal loved her ideas and philosophies and made us lovers of the word as well.
Some would argue that it is not only kids who have entitlement attitudes today —that our society and culture seems to have less grit than in former times. Kids used to work harder and have more outside-the-home jobs. People worked harder around the house, and there were fewer labor-saving devices. Things weren’t quite as comfortable and easy. People labored on and continued to work even when they didn’t feel so well. For example, during the recent NBA playoff tournament, there was a player who missed games because of "toe soreness." It's difficult for us to imagine that happening to notable players from previous years.
But whether or not society at large has become softer, we parents surely don’t want it to happen to our own kids. But entitlement is like a disease, it’s contagious. Kids catch it from their friends and from the media. And it really is like a trap, because once it clamps on them, it seems to never want to let go.
So in this new and softer world, how do parents help their kids develop grit? What will replace in their lives the lawnmowing jobs, the paper routes, the waitressing and car-washing and baby-sitting that helped teach parents grit?
We like to think that there are two things parents can do for their kids to give them more grit. One is to set up a “family economy” where kids have very definitive jobs in and around the house and get paid on a Saturday “payday” according to how many of their jobs they completed on their own initiative.
This system can replace an entitlement-breeding allowance system where kids are just handed money each week on allowance day. For more on setting up a functioning family economy, see valuesparenting.com/the-happy-family/family-infrastructure/family-economy/.
The other thing that can give kids grit is a bit more counterintuitive. Many experts feel that how resilient a child is or how much grit he exhibits is directly related to how much he knows about his grandparents and great-grandparents — about their lives and their stories and about how hard they had to work to get by.
We suggest that families set up a family tree, with pictures of grandparents and great-grandparents on the respective roots and pictures of your children on the tree’s branches. Help children see the connection between them and their ancestors, and put together stories for children about both the good and bad times of each of these ancestors. As kids begin to realize where they came from, whose genetics they carry and whose blood flows in their veins, they will begin to believe that the grit shown by these forbearers is also in them.
Parents who recognize the dangers of the entitlement trap and who develop an active strategy for giving their kids grit are going to raise children who are well prepared to live securely and safely in a world that is going in opposite directions.
This summer may be a good time to begin — by giving kids ways to earn the money they will need for their summer activities, and by starting to tell them the gritty stories of their ancestors.