That Attitude of Entitlement

It’s that “I deserve to have anything I want” demanding tone of voice. It’s that “You are here to serve ME tone of voice. We’ve all seen it and heard it – maybe from our own kids, their friends, students, even from young employees of a business; in fact, it seems to be rampant among adolescents and the 20-something age group.

One example – among many – happened a few years ago. I was teaching advanced composition to college juniors and seniors. I made the mistake of returning an assignment at the beginning of class. About four students demanded we take class time for me to explain why they “only had a “B.” When I replied that I would be glad to do so after class or during my office hours, they became furious, accusing me of ruining their GPA. They were totally oblivious to the needs of other class members. One young woman even informed me that I was paid to hold office hours and since she wasn’t paid to attend, my job was to take class time to address her needs.

Where does this entitlement attitude come from?  While there are several probable sources in our society, I want to address some ways we parents and educators contribute to it. I address this issue based on my experience as a public-school teacher and later, as a college professor.

First of all, I have seen a growing lack of appropriate consequences for unacceptable behavior.  As examples of what I mean, I’ll share 2 similar experiences – one from when I first started teaching adolescents and one 20 years later.  

Near the beginning of my career, a student got into a rage and yelled at me, saying he was “going to shove my ___ head through the window.” He was immediately removed from the class, administration met with the parents, and both the parents and the school disciplined the boy.

Twenty years later, a very different tolerance level for this type of behavior had become prevalent. A 17 year-old student asked me a question while I was engaged with another student. When I replied, “just a minute,” he stood up, towering over me and pointing his finger, yelled, “Lady, I asked you a question.” The outcome of this episode was very different from the one years earlier. The school did not remove him from class; in fact, informed me he would remain in my class, and his mother said his behavior was the school’s fault.

These examples may sound unusual to the average community member, but they are by no means isolated incidents. What has happened to the practice of holding our students and our kids accountable? Over the years of teaching in both high school and college, I have increasingly encountered far too many schools’ reluctance to carry through with appropriate consequences. And I have increasingly encountered angry parents who blamed the school for their child’s unacceptable grade or behavior.  

As either parent or teacher, we too often ignore or threaten with no meaningful consequences. Let’s face it; it’s much easier to give in and overlook unacceptable behavior. As parents, we work all day and come home tired and hungry and still have to prepare dinner and get ready for the next day. Who wants to start a power-struggle over a game box or homework or a messy kitchen?  

As teachers we consistently allow students to turn in assignments late, and at the end of the quarter, to do something for “extra credit” even though it’s the last week of the grading period (busiest time for teachers) and probably won’t contribute to the student’s learning. Giving-in or overlooking is so much easier than dealing with upset parents or explaining to disgruntled administrators.

Whoa, wait a minute here.  We’re all missing the opportunities to be teaching these young people how to become responsible for their behavior. Consider the following.

What do we parents do when our kids forget their lunch money or homework or team uniform, etc?  Do we deliver it to the school FOR our child? Or do we ALLOW her to live with the natural consequences of her irresponsible behavior? We’re not talking about extenuating circumstances here but rather consistently “Rescuing” our child from the uncomfortable consequences of his or her irresponsible behavior.

When one of our students continues to forget his homework or to be late for class, do we just give one chance after another?  Or do we ALLOW him to live with the natural consequences of his irresponsible choices?

How can young people feel anything but entitled when others are doing for them what they are developmentally ready to do for themselves or when they’re given everything and not held to any expectations? When we fail to hold a young person to standards and expectations, we’re telling her she is more important than others. We’re saying she is the center and others revolve around her. We’re saying rules don’t apply to her.

To tell our kids that they’re not the center of the universe, but rather a very important part of it, we have to teach them how to become responsible.   Teaching, whether by a parent or a teacher, requires that we spend time telling and explaining the expectations, but, teaching is so much more than telling and explaining. It also includes guided practice followed by an expectation that the child or adolescent will carry out the task on his own and do so consistently – not perfectly, just consistently.

Teaching also includes spending extra time and effort with the child who isn’t succeeding. It includes celebrating success and allowing natural consequences of failure. If the expectation is that your 4th. grader empty the dishwasher every day when he gets home from school, and he has carried out the task for a whole week, a celebration might be a Friday pizza night (or some other reward). If, on the other hand, he has forgotten his task a couple of times, a reasonable natural consequence is that there is no celebration.

We parents teach responsibility when we hold the expectation that our kids remember their school items, that they get themselves up and out the door on time for school, that they do household tasks, and other age and developmentally appropriate behavior. We hold our kids to these expectations when we do not do the forgotten tasks for them, but rather allow them to live with the consequences of their behavior.

 We educators teach responsibility when we insist on the expectation that our students make arrangements to do “extra credit” early in a ranking period so the learning can be assessed — rather than a grade supplied, when we hold them to a deadline for assignments, etc. and when we work with parents to allow students to live with the consequences of their behavior.

As long as we parents are delivering our kids’ things to school, picking up after them, constantly driving them to school when they miss the bus, doing all the home tasks ourselves…and not consistently enforcing reasonable consequences; and as long as we educators are giving chance after chance that doesn’t lead to increased student learning…and not consistently enforcing reasonable consequences, we are all contributing to irresponsible behavior and thus to that attitude of Entitlement.

One thought on “That Attitude of Entitlement

  1. Very interesting and accurate. I’d like to add that by letting children “get away with” bad behaviors we are sending the message that we don’t think they are capable of better, thereby lowering their self-esteem in very subtle ways.


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