Smart Answers to Parents’ Toughest Questions

No-Fail Ways to Set Entitled Kids Straight

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Learn how to say no to kids who have an inflated sense of their own importance. Check out these tips from our panel of experts: Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World; Michael Grosso, M.D., Chairman, Department of Pediatrics, and Chief Medical Officer at Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital in Huntington, New York; and Ruth Milanaik, D.O., Director of the Neonatal Neurodevelopmental Follow-Up Program at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York.

Saying no to a child can be tough, even when the demands seem completely insane—like wanting a pony to live in the backyard. Yet automatically giving in to a kid to avoid a fit, or habitually acquiescing to unreasonable wants, is not the way to go either. Here’s how to avoid raising an entitled child—and what you should do if you already have one.

Let’s go with some good news first: Is it really possible to avoid raising an entitled kid when your job is to meet your kid’s needs, and you just want your child to be happy?

“Yes, it’s possible. Having chores in the house is a healthy way to teach responsibility and ward off the ‘entitlement monster.’ Responsibilities, however, depend on the age and capabilities of the child and your expectations. If you feel the need to inspect every glass for water spots, then maybe doing the dishes isn’t the right job for a child in your family. But whatever task you assign, there needs to be a consistent expectation.”—Dr. Grosso “You can avoid entitlement issues by helping children understand that for everything except birthdays and holidays, privileges and presents are earned, not given. For example, rather than simply taking your kids to the movies on a Saturday, give them a challenge and say, ‘Let’s clean this house together and then go relax at the movies.’”—Dr. Milanaik “Sometimes you have to say no. Your kids may be very unhappy or very angry at you in the short term, but you need to set boundaries and follow through on consequences to teach them accountability and responsibility. You can begin by saying, ‘Starting this month, you are responsible for taking your homework and lunch to school. If you forget, I won’t drive them over.’ You can set kids up for success by posting signs and reminders.”—Ms. McCready

But do those tips apply to all kids, including babies?

“First, let’s remember that it is impossible to spoil an infant. Responding to a two-month-old’s needs in a reliable way doesn’t create entitlement. In fact, it builds a sense of confidence in the world that is a critical foundation for later emotional health. However, things change. Between 18 and 36 months, toddlers begin to explore limits. If a child of this age kicks the family pet or goes to stick his finger in an electrical socket, the correct parental response is a clear, sharp, but not furious ‘No!’ Reacting this way will send a signal to the toddler. A parent’s disapproval is a very powerful motivator.”—Dr. Grosso

So, at what point should parents take steps to prevent entitled behavior?

“Parents should take steps before a behavior starts, if possible. For example, a child should be told, ‘Listen John, we are going to Target. I have a list of the things we are getting, and you can help me with that list. But we will not be getting anything else. If there are things you would like, we can take a picture and maybe get them later with your own money.’ Parents should not buy things on the spot for good behavior.” —Dr. Milanaik

Got it. But entitled kids sometimes make demands and overreact to a “no” in a heartbeat. Is there any way to redirect them and stop a sense of entitlement?

“Redirect entitled reactions with a calm demeanor and without anger. Entitlement is a learned reaction and not something that a child is born with; it can be extinguished with positive rewards, tasks or chores, and patience. No child should be publicly demeaned. Instead, remove yourself and your child from the location and have a calm discussion. If you are out in public, a car can be a safe and private place to discuss your child’s behavior.”—Dr. Milanaik “Empathize—but hold your ground. Explain your rules clearly. For example, if your daughter insists on buying the latest and greatest toy she saw on TV, don’t give her a lecture about privilege and poverty. Instead, empathize, and then shift the responsibility to her by saying, ‘Wow, that toy is so cool! Do you have enough allowance saved, or do you want to put that on your wish list?’ That sends the message: We don’t get everything we want when we want it.”—Ms. McCready

Are there any other ways parents can avoid encouraging, or eliminate, entitled behavior, or better yet, instill in their kids a positive and grateful attitude?

“Children learn in many ways. Parents can talk to their kids about what it means to be grateful. They also can help both younger and older children understand that there are times when people give to others and do not expect any rewards—for example, those who work or volunteer at service organizations, such as the fire station, police station, and hospitals. Chores also help kids gain a sense of responsibility and accomplishment. Start with chores that kids like. Having them clean the kitchen table with a spray bottle filled with water and a little vinegar is always fun.”—Dr. Milanaik “Shift their focus to others around them, and serving others throughout the year. Engage your family in a weekly random act of kindness. For example, just go and rake a neighbor’s lawn, or bake a batch of cookies and take it to a neighbor. Little things like that will get kids in the mindset of how they can be a blessing in somebody else’s day.”—Ms. McCready