An Interview with Susan Newman, Ph.D
The longer I’ve been a parent, the more I have become aware of how entitled many people seem to be and how very easy it is to get caught up in comparing what you have or don’t have with other families around you. The disparity between rich and poor (or even middle class) in many cities can be quite dramatic. As my children grow older, their awareness of the differences between themselves and their classmates grows. As they’re allowed more access to media and have a wider circle of friends, their desire for “stuff” they might otherwise not have been exposed to grows as well. Helping our children gain a broader perspective of the world they live in, instilling a sense of gratitude for all we have and encouraging kindness toward those less fortunate than us are all things very important to both me and my husband. But it’s not easy. So I turned to Dr. Susan Newman, social psychologist and best-selling author of 15 books, including The Big Book of NO, to offer her advice on how we can raise kids with a greater sense of gratitude and less of a sense of entitlement. ~ Gina Osher, The Twin Coach, TMC Contributer
Many parents believe that children today are much less respectful than they were a generation or two ago. Some believe that more discipline would lead to more respectful behavior and that it’s permissive parenting that has resulted in children behaving badly. What are your thoughts on this?
In my opinion, what’s happened is that so many of today’s parents don’t want to see their children unhappy, even for a single second. This fear of saying “No” can be seen as permissive parenting but what it more often is, actually, is parents who are unable to set boundaries. Unfortunately, what happens when you don’t set boundaries is that as children get older the lines between who is the child and who is the parent gets blurred. This is very often what leads to behavior that is seen as disrespectful. Setting boundaries with empathy and respect doesn’t lead to an entitled child. In fact, it empowers your child to make mature decisions and actually makes parenting easier in the long run. Teaching your children about commitment and responsibility is one way to set firm but loving boundaries. For example, your child is on a t-ball team and got invited to a birthday party at the same time as a game he is scheduled to play. Reminding your child that he has a prior commitment and can’t always have his way, while still empathizing with his disappointment, is teaching him much more than simply letting him choose the party. Yes, he might be sad in the moment, but in the long run boundaries let your child know what is expected of him or her.
Does using superlatives to praise a child effect a child’s sense of entitlement?
Using superlative praise can be very detrimental to children. By doing this, you are ultimately encouraging superiority which is very similar to entitlement. To tell your child she is the prettiest, the smartest, the best artist, etc. actually gives her a false sense of who she is. There will always be someone more athletic or more musically inclined. What you’re actually doing by using statements like these is undermining your child in such a way that he thinks that because he’s already so terrific that he doesn’t have to try so hard. Ultimately, everything is much more devastating when he does, eventually, fail.
What steps can a parent take to better ensure they’re raising children who embody qualities like graciousness, respect and gratitude?
The best way to do any of this is to display those qualities yourself. Your kids are watching you carefully so you want to be sure you’re modeling the sort of behavior you want your child to have. There are many ways to to this.
- Explain to your children how you’re helping others even if they’re too young to come along with you as you donate your time.
- Encourage your children to choose a charity that resonates with them and help them raise money to donate.
- Before your child’s birthday, work with them to gather toys they no longer play with to give to needy children.
- If a sports figure starts a charity and your children love that particular sport, share the news with them.
- Be gracious to waiters and salespeople when you’re out with your children.
- Most importantly, if you catch yourself not being respectful to your children, apologize and ask them for a do-over so you can respond with more graciousness. You don’t want to be practicing “do as I say, not as I do” parenting!
What’s the best way to respond to a child who wants to know why a friend has more than his own family, or who constantly asks for toys, clothes, games and more?
The best way to handle this is to be honest. Explain your finances to your children in a way that shows your family values, emphasizes what you do have and doesn’t make them concerned for their future, “I’m happy they have those things. We spend our extra money to go on a nice vacation every year. We like to travel and to be together as a family.” Focus on the positive and remind your children that you don’t have to be like everyone else – we have our ways and they have theirs. “Yes parents” often worry their children will dislike them but it’s important to remember that always saying yes can lead to materialism and too great a focus on possessions. For parents who do find themselves always giving their children whatever they ask for, think about how you were raised and ask yourself if the giving is a reaction to how you were raised or treated as a child. There is often a link to be made and understanding it can help you feel more at ease with saying “no.”
What factors in our society are contributing to young children lacking appreciation for what they have?
Parenting today can be so competitive. Look around at the sort of birthday parties that many children have today – the spending is ridiculous! Where do you go from there? The children keep expecting more and more. Media coverage of young superstars like Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber emphasize the glitz and the glamour and even parents get sucked into the fantasy. Media also gives us a very clear picture of what everyone else has and many parents don’t want their child to miss out. A generation ago it was the grandparents who would indulge the children, but these days parents are doing that all by themselves! Stop for a moment and consider whether the values and messages you are sending your children are the ones you want them to grow up with. If not, it’s time to make some adjustments in what we’re modeling as our young children take their cues from us.