Most people think of ‘spoiling’ as overloading children with material goods, giving them the latest gadget, the year’s must-have toy; throwing extravagant birthday parties and lavishing them with expensive gifts.
Others claim this is only half of the story. Parenting techniques of today – which include helicopter and snowplough parenting (the former involves constantly hovering over our children ready to swoop in, while the latter clears every obstacle from our child’s path) – also contribute to a sense of entitlement and expectation in a child that lingers well into adulthood.
Several years ago, Elizabeth Kolbert’s article ‘Spoiled Rotten’ in The New Yorker went viral; it was shared, tweeted and shared again all over the world. In it she contrasted the well-behaved, self-sufficient children of a tribe of Peruvian Indians with their bratty, over-indulged and selfish counterparts in today’s American culture. ‘How did the First World allow this to happen?’ she asks. The obvious answer is that a society of excess, where what you have is prized more highly than how you behave, is at fault and if you strip away all the unnecessary trappings of a consumerist society then children would be better behaved and everyone would be a lot more content. But is this true?
Toys instead of time
There are many reasons why parents buy their children everything they desire, and even some things the child didn’t even know they wanted. Therese Sequeira, parent educator at KidsFirst in Dubai, says that parents overindulge their children mainly as a substitute for their time. “Which is what a child would prefer,” she points out.
“Many parents feel guilty for working long hours and going away on business trips, so they substitute time with gifts. This breeds an air of expectation in the children; they think, ‘Dad has gone away, last time he went he brought me back an Xbox, I wonder what I’ll get this time…’ so the expectation grows, and rather than being pleased to see the father return home, the child is excited to see what they’ll get from him.”
Another reason is quite simply the look on children’s faces when they unwrap their gift. This moment of instant gratification, Therese says, is often what propels parents to overstretch their finances just to get that moment where their child is happy.
The last motive is peer group pressure. “As children get older, they say with more regularity, ‘so and so has it, and I want it, it’s not fair that I don’t have it.’ There are times when a child’s request is reasonable, and others when it’s not and parents need to know that it’s OK to say no.”
Child development researcher LR Knost says that it’s not necessarily the act of giving a child too much that causes potential problems, it’s when the gift-giving takes the place of nurturing. “When children have their material needs met in lieu of their emotional needs (that is, when they’re given things and screen time instead of meaningful interaction) the symptomatic behaviour of entitlement begins to surface. Children who are in stable, supportive, loving relationships with emotionally available and compassionate parents tend to grow into well-adjusted, generous, respectful adults, whether they live with scarcity or abundance.”
This seems to be the key point – the amount of things a child receives is not actually the problem, it is the reason why the parents feel the need to indulge the child that provides the link to a feeling of entitlement.
Read more: ‘9 ways to raise kids who want to give back’
In Jean Twenge and W Keith Campbell’s book The Narcissism Epidemic, they write, “In an attempt to raise kids with self-esteem, many parents will tell their kids they’re the best ever and they’ll treat them like royalty, placing the child at the centre of their household. In a limited way, that’s fine, but it’s often taken too far… When you put a child on a pedestal, that type of parenting leads to narcissism.”
This is an interesting concept, particularly in the UAE where most expat families enjoy the luxury of home help. When children grow up in a house where their beds are made for them, their rooms tidied, meals cooked, clothes washed, and all normal chores that they may have been asked to do in their home countries are not asked of them, they evolve into teenagers who expect things to be done for them – and why wouldn’t they?
This is such a common occurrence today there is even a term for it: ‘adultescence’. This describes the power shift from parent to child, and explains why so many children are no longer leaving home at 18 and instead live at home well into their 20s and even 30s.
Sally Koslow, author of the book Slouching Toward Adulthood – Observations From The Not So Empty Nest describes these youngsters as “inhabiting a broad savannah of entitlement that we’ve watered, landscaped and hired gardeners to maintain”.
Koslow draws a picture of a cultural crisis in the making, with statistics to back her up: According to the US Census Bureau, between 2007 and 2011, the number of young adults living at home enjoying their mums’ cooking and laundry skills for free, rose from 4.7 million to 5.9 million. These adolescents are hardly to blame though – if they’ve been raised to believe it’s OK to sit on the sofa and merely raise their legs while their mother (or the maid) vacuums around them, then this sense of entitlement cannot fail to infiltrate their adulthood.
In other cultures children are still expected to take on more responsibility when young, which harks back to Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in The New Yorker, where the children of the Matsigenka tribe help out at home without even being asked.
Historically children made up a substantial amount of the global work force – particularly in the agricultural and handicraft economies, where children as young as seven were expected to join the family business. According to recent UN reports, around the world there are still 215 million children working, many full-time. Which puts the situation of those kids who whine that they want the iPhone XR and not the iPhone 8 for their birthday into perspective.
The ‘now now now’ generation
Before social media existed, children would emerge from their houses on Christmas morning with their new toy to proudly show to their friends on their street. Of course there may have been a momentary twinge of envy when one child presented his new yoyo and the boy next door was busy doing wheelies on his new BMX, but today tweenagers log on to Facebook or Instagram and immediately see what every child in their year group received, creating an unprecedented amount of peer pressure.
‘Social media image crafting’ is where people create a virtual world where often over-inflated versions of the truth are exhibited for everyone to see.
People rarely post comments about how they failed their exams or put on 10 kilos. Facebook, Instagram and the like are largely about what you’ve achieved and how great your life is, which in turn could lead to higher, and unreasonable, levels of expectation.
Also, through the rapid advances in communication techniques – texting, email, the internet – we’re used to getting whatever information we want immediately. We become impatient when it takes five seconds for a webpage to load, or irritated when the person we’ve just WhatsApp’ed doesn’t reply straight away.
Just 20 years ago, people still relied on the postal system to send and receive information, waiting for mail to be delivered by hand. If we wanted factual information, we visited the library to locate a book and we waited in a queue to borrow it. If we wanted to buy a book, we visited the bookstore and bought it; one-click ordering on to our Kindles didn’t exist.
There’s no doubt we are living in a very ‘now’ society and the effect could very likely be a generation of impatient, entitled children.
Teaching appreciation for what you have
The ultimate aim is to raise children who feel deserving, but not entitled. As a parent, you have an instinct to protect your children from the harsh realities of life, but it is also important for them to establish a strong sense of empathy early on, which makes them realise how fortunate they are. Talking to them about poverty and the importance of charity allows them to develop these feelings for themselves.
Lisa Stratford is a mum of two, living in Dubai. While on holiday her family visited Children’s Hope, a charity for vulnerable children in Sri Lanka. “My children were four and six at the first time of visiting and it had a profound effect on all of us. We met an eight-year-old girl who had never owned a pair of shoes and we heard our own children immediately offer up their own belongings to them. It made them understand that there are children, just like them, in the world who aren’t as lucky as they are. Now it’s become second nature for my children to constantly go through their bedrooms and look for things they don’t use to put aside for us to send to Sri Lanka.”
There’s no greater way to impart your values than leading by example. If children see their parents’ wealth being used selfishly and extravagantly – new cars every year, expensive clothes, flashy jewellery, handbags, shoes – they equate money with increased status and power and see it as disposable.
But if they see wealth as a way to enrich the lives of the family and others – through education, travel, culture and philanthropy – the message they receive is very different.