Whack. Whack. Whack. A four-year-old boy was continuously pulling and releasing the tray table on the back of my husband’s seat on a recent flight to Phoenix. It was late—probably past the boy’s regular bedtime. Belted into his seat for nearly three hours, he was clearly bored, tired, and doing what comes naturally to a preschooler. He was protesting the injustices of his life in the only way he knew how—whining, crying and distracting himself by whacking the tray table on the seat immediately in front of him.

It’s easy to see the problem with a four-year-old’s behavior. It’s annoying. It fails to produce the desired results. It’s a pain in the neck to anyone within ear shot.  And, yet, it makes sense to a young child. It’s the only way he knows to register his discontent because he didn’t expect riding on an airplane to be so dull and confining. He thought it would be a lot more exciting.

This is one of the problems with the high-tech lifestyle to which most of us, and especially our kids, have become accustomed. According to Tim Elmore and Andrew McPeak (2019) in Generation Z Unfiltered: Facing Nine Hidden Challenges of the Most Anxious Population, “Our world is full of speed, convenience, entertainment, nurture and entitlement” (p. 115).

While these are not necessarily bad things, they do condition us to believe the following:

  1. Slow is bad.
  2. Hard is bad.
  3. Boring is bad.
  4. Risk is bad.
  5. Labor is bad.

As we assume the above, we begin to believe we deserve to be treated in ways that are comfortable, caring, convenient and fun.

The problem is that life often fails to unfold itself in the way we like. Any mature adult recognizes this, but our children do not and today’s world makes it difficult for them to develop realistic expectations.

Parents know learning a new skill or habit takes time and expect that it can be difficult. Practice often feels a lot like work. Likewise, trying new experiences opens the door to the possibility of failure. Perhaps this is why more young people than ever before are delaying to obtain a driver’s license or move out of their parent’s home to a dorm room or apartment of their own. They want to avoid the risks associated with being responsible for one’s self. They’re not sure what to expect.

Here’s the thing, if we want to be happy in life, we need to learn to manage our expectations. It has been suggested that when reality (R) is less than our expectations (E), we are unhappy or discontent (D).

When we believe we are missing out on sometime we are entitled to have, frustration and disappointment morph into anger. We say, “That’s not fair!” and we believe we have been wronged. There is injustice in the world and we are the victim. It is not a happy place to be.

So how does a parent battle the persistent messages of entitlement his child receives? Here are three possibilities:

  1. Help them to see and experience bigger picture, e.g. you might ask a younger child to talk with you about all the people who helped make his dinner possible. This would include the farmer who grew and harvested it, the trucker who transported it, the grocery store where it was stocked, the person who purchased it and the one that prepared it. In so doing you are helping him or her connect the dots and know that things don’t just happen. People work to make them happen. For an older child who has the goal of owning some sort of technology, you can talk about the cost, the number of work hours needed to purchase that item, and the kinds of jobs s/he might do to accomplish that goal.
  2. Practice gratitude for what you have and instill this value in your child. Make a habit of expressing appreciation for what you already own—your favorite shirt, a car that works, clean drinking water. Modeling gratitude and encouraging it in your child goes a long way in helping us all to feel less entitled and more grateful for what we already have. There is considerable research to support the relationship between gratitude and mental health as well.
  3. Connect rights and responsibilities. When we learn to drive a car, we become responsible to maintaining and operating that vehicle in a safe manner. When a child learns to ride a bicycle or gets a pet, what responsibilities should also accompany bike or pet ownership? Help children see that freedom and ownership are connected to accountability for one’s behavior related to those things.

There’s one more thing. When we are able to overcome the bonds of entitlement, we are much more likely to see the bigger picture and demonstrate compassion. We can see a disagreeable, out-of-control child or we can have empathy for a tired, traveling mom returning home from a visit with her military husband. She’s tired; her son is tired; and a wiggly little body is to be expected. We can get over ourselves and our own expectations. We can see the world through a different lens and we are often a lot happier—something we want for ourselves and our children.

For more great insights and tips be sure to subscribe to our Good Dads Podcast.
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About Author

Dr. Jennifer Baker is the Founder and Director of Good Dads. She is the wife of one, mother of two and grandmother of eight. She may be reached for question or comment at jennifer@gooddads.com.