The secret pain of the entitled child

November 25, 2009

On this week of giving thanks, I thought we might turn our attention to a certain sort of child who tends to try our patience:  the entitled child.

Recently my wife was helping serve hot lunch at school when a high school girl asked if she could just “take a water.”  The bottled waters came with lunch if you bought it, and my wife explained that they had to serve everyone who had paid for a lunch before they could give any extra away.  In the meantime my wife learned from another mom that this child always asks for free stuff, yet comes from a rather wealthy family.  The girl came back and, in a surly tone, again demanded a water but when politely told she could buy one at the student store (just steps away) for fifty cents, she let out an angry and exasperated sigh, saying, “Fine… I’ll just go thirsty!”

While some of us grew up having to worry whether the bully might shake us down for our lunch money, and plenty of kids still must deal with these realities, when our most fortunate kids are little snits we parents need to band together to help put the kibosh on the ‘tude—for the good of the group and the ultimate well being of these little prima donnas who are almost always miserably unhappy and suffering from low self-esteem.

The larger context for entitlement is a culture where manners are dying, which is compounded by the general notion that we grown-ups want to be relaxed and casual with children.  All but the very youngest of current parents grew up in a world where we really would not think of addressing grown-ups with the tone of condescension, contempt and rude bossiness that we routinely encounter today if we drive field trips, serve hot lunches or hang out at the park when our kids participate in team sports.  Further to yesterday’s post on bullies, it’s the parents who most need to contemplate this issue who are least likely to be reading a blog like this—it’s the disengaged and often entitled parent who gives rise to the entitlement in the ill-served child—and it’s as likely as not the nanny, the teacher, the sister-in-law or even the parent’s personal assistant who will be left contemplating what to do for the seemingly unlikable child who has fallen through the cracks of their parents’ Blackberry schedule.

This topic also relates to bullies because the entitled prima donna, for all practical purposes, is the bully:  they tend to be rude to other kids, and prone to conflicts in class and on the schoolyard.  In fact, my wife’s ultimate feeling about the kid who wanted free stuff was that she seemed to be in the market for a confrontation more than anything else.  This makes sense from a need for attention perspective, especially when a kid feels that by being good they don’t particularly get much attention (at least at home). 

Given that kids who are entitled almost invariably lack an engaged relationship with their parents, it raises the issue of unfairness.  The parents who phone their parenting in, leave the parents who do tend to step up—those who actually deal with their own issues and those of their children, including the entitlement all our kids show from time to time—left having to deal with the kids who cry out for love and limits with their rude, even anti-social, behavior.

Entitled children, and grown-ups, always suffer from alienation, lack of trust and restless unhappiness.  They are forever striving for the next free thing, but never feeling satisfied; it’s like expensive charity events where wealthy celebrities relish the gift bag, as if they actually need more swag.  Doesn’t this suggest a poverty of spirit that is forever hungry for more free stuff, but cannot be filled because the vessel of the self is a colander as opposed to a bowl? 

In the interest of compassion, I invite us to re-think entitled people, particularly children, as the true emotional “homeless”—as those without a psychological pot to piss in, which may be why they so readily piss others off—they don’t see themselves as fortunate, they see themselves as hurt urchins in Les Misérables.  The anger the entitled evoke in us is the anger they feel at being secretly inadequate; if we confront them on their entitlement they get angry because they feel that they really are inadequate, unlovable and unable to do better.  This is the great distortion that they carry, and which must heal, before the surly mask can be safely dropped. 

While each of us who encounters an entitled child (and sometimes we encounter them in our own homes, in our own kids) may feel like we are putting but a drop in the ocean, much less the bucket, if we work to soften our gaze and see to the vulnerable core of the snarky misanthrope, like water on rock, our love just might wear down their self-hate.

We cannot simply give-in to spoiled kids because we fear a confrontation, or feel we lack the energy to hold the line and endure the drama (it’s so much easier, albeit ultimately cruel, to throw “free stuff” at the beast).  It is true that it’s not fair when it’s not even our kid that we are dealing with, but that’s my point—they really are all our kids.  Reaching deeper to find the love and compassion for the hard-to-like kid, while at the same time holding the line (i.e. at our house we say please and thank you) helps us grow because we all have an insecure and entitled aspect within us—maybe that is even our particular Shadow.  Yet when we get it compassionately right, we heal ourselves and help make our world a better place—not by schooling others, but by relating to them, spirit to spirit.

Namaste, Bruce

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