From a parenting perspective, I’m not really qualified to share how to raise children that are not entitled. My only child is only 2, at the moment, and I’m pretty sure all 2-year-olds are fairly entitled. We are working on it, and I’m still trying to figure out the basics. But when I consider what my parents did to ensure my siblings and I grew up with humility and gratitude (really, the opposite of entitlement, right?), I have some thoughts.
It’s easier for me to look back and remember how I received things as a child. I’ve used that perspective quite a bit, even with my daughter. Like, why did my parents trust me? What made me have so much respect for them that I never wanted to betray that trust? How did they teach us vital character traits right out the gate of babyhood?
My parents got a lot of things right, and I think these are just a few of the things they taught us that ensured we didn’t grow up entitled.
They taught us:
- To always show appreciation for anything we were given regardless of if we liked it or not. It could have literally been the ugliest “grandma sweater” on the planet, but if it was a gift, I needed to say, “thank you,” and nothing more. I remember even as a young child remarking that a Christmas gift I’d received “didn’t work right” while the gift-giver was still in the adjoining room. My mom immediately whispered in my ear to let it go and we’d figure it out later. She would often wait until we were alone and discuss how important it was to show gratitude and be careful not to embarrass others. This became a theme throughout our childhood to always consider how what we said affected those around us and to always show gratitude for the thought behind the gift.
- That the most popular brands and the latest gadgets don’t measure our value as individuals. This was probably partially because we were a frugal one-income family for a large portion of my younger years, and we didn’t have tons of extra to buy all the things. But my parents frequently reminded us that a well-made shirt from JC Penny was just as a nice as a popular brand that cost twice as much. They lived this out, too, by not placing much value on what was considered “in” at the time. Now, I know sometimes people have preferences, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting nice things. But they showed us that it was more important who were inside than what we wore on the outside. We didn’t drive fancy cars or have the latest electronics. It taught us humility at an early age. This is a hard one for families that can actually afford all the nicest things because often those humble beginnings come out of necessity. If you can’t afford it, you don’t get it. If you’re fortunate to be able to afford your child all the nicest things, it will take more judgment and consideration on your part when making purchases since your bank account won’t be making that decision for you.
- To wait on wants. Following along with the second point, they didn’t get us everything we wanted, and we often had to wait a bit for the things we did get. I can remember looking at an ABC catalogue (yes, I’m that old) and half-obsessing over a baby doll I wanted. I couldn’t have been older than 6. I would lay on the floor in the living room and look at that magazine pretty much every day. I don’t even remember asking for it, but I remember wanting it, and my mom saw that. I eventually got it (for a birthday maybe?), and it was a huge surprise. All that time looking at the ad for the doll had really built my anticipation. To this day, it’s one of my most memorable gifts because of all the time I spent wanting it and the surprise of finally getting it when my dad showed up with a delivery at the front door.
- To serve others even from a young age. Mostly, we learned this from watching them and then joining in. My parents never sat around after a church or community function. My siblings and I spent our middle and high school years in the church kitchen after any church-wide meal. Washing the dishes became my joy as I found a way to take some of the load off the older ladies who had spent so much time preparing the meal. We showed up to any outreach events at our church, always finding a place to serve. This was just a part of our life, not something we had to think about. In the seasons of my life when I’ve been too bombarded with childcare and work to do as much service as I’d like, it feels strange. Like I’m slacking. Because service is ingrained in me now and second nature. And even in the busy seasons, I want to find ways to give back. This is something that starts when kids are very young, not something you wait to teach them as adolescents. And the quickest way to teach them to be servants? Let them see their parents serve and then invite them to join you.
- That happiness doesn’t come from things. I’m not saying you need to tell your kids all the stories about “walking to school barefoot in 6 feet of snow uphill both ways,” but letting them see the way others live isn’t a bad thing either. Gentle exposure to the poverty of the world is a good reality check. I remember sponsoring children in third-world countries and having family conversations about what real poverty looks like. My parents regularly discussed the true elements of happiness found in family, life passions, hard work, friends, community, and having character. This is just something that was intertwined in the language of my childhood, and I’m not sure I could even give step-by-step advice on how my parents accomplished that. There’s a movement toward minimalism in this country lately, and I think that’s a good thing. Prioritizing stuff less and life experiences more. Looking at the data that shows how rampant depression is among the very wealthy is sobering, and it’s motivation to ensure your kids don’t spend their life chasing happiness from their bank accounts.
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry,
whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
I think this verse sums it up. Teach your children to be content with little or much. Show them what contentment looks like. Let them see you rest in daily simple pleasures, not obsessing over tangible wants.
We were blessed with many things in my childhood, including tons of fun toys, all the food we would ever need, a warm house (cool one in the summer), and parents that loved us unconditionally. We never went without. But I do think that adding lessons about what’s important and denying us instant gratification went a long way to helping my siblings and I avoid too much entitled thinking. These are parenting skills I hope to emulate with my own daughter as well. It’s not always easy, but I know it will be worth it.
Written by: Anna Wetherington. Anna is a wife, mom, writer, and behavioral health therapist living in Valdosta, GA with her husband and daughter.