No parent intends to raise a spoilt child, says Amy McCready. “It happens little by little in the name of love, of course.
We do things that they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves, we rescue them when they should learn from their mistakes and we give in because we want our kids to be happy,” she explains. These parenting indulgences seem harmless but are damaging in the long run, robbing children of the chance to make decisions and preventing them from developing the resilience they will need to thrive through the ups and downs of life.
In her new book The Me, Me, Me Epidemic, McCready lists some of the key signs that parents have a problem in their household. She looks at the root causes behind what she calls the “entitlement epidemic” and shows how it can be problematic not just at home but in wider society. She helps parents to understand the difference between a reasonable request and behaving in an entitled way (what we used to call spoilt) and offers what she says are proven tools to “gently dethrone all the little monarchs in our homes without a military coup”.
The author, a mother of two, is an American parenting expert who describes herself as a “recovering yeller”. “When my boys were younger and I was frustrated with their behaviour I would default to nagging and reminding and yelling and it wasn’t terribly effective,” she explains. She studied positive parenting techniques, she says, which involve guiding children along the right path and resisting opportunities to be punitive. With a background in business training, McCready is the founder of a consultancy called Positive Parenting Solutions and a sought-after commentator on family issues in the US.
In The Me, Me, Me Epidemic, the author says that the signs to look out for include: your children expect bribes or rewards for good behaviour, rarely lift a finger to help, are more concerned about themselves than others, pass blame when things go wrong, cannot handle disappointment, expect to be rescued from mistakes, feel like the rules do not apply to them and always want “more, more, MORE!”
Eventually matters reach the stage where family decisions are being made by the child — where to go on holiday, what secondary school the child should go to, whether the family should get a dog.
“It’s appropriate and loving for kids to have our attention and to be the centre of our lives but it gets to a point where kids rule and parents are jumping through hoops to meet their endless demands,” McCready says. “If they are calling the shots constantly and we are going against our better judgment, saying yes when really we should be saying no, it gets to be a problem.” Often, she says, weary parents find it easier to give in to a demanding child, but this is a short-sighted strategy that will have repercussions.
A child’s primary goal is to achieve belonging and significance, McCready explains. “These are our two most basic human psychological needs and they are built-in, present from birth.” A sense of belonging is achieved when children feel emotionally connected to other family members. They know their place in the family and how they fit in. A sense of significance comes from feeling capable, being able to make meaningful contributions to the family and having a sense of power — some level of influence or control over what happens to them.
“Very often, particularly when kids are young, their demanding behaviour is a cry for help. We’re not filling their attention bucket enough in positive ways and so they will use negative behaviours to get our attention,” says McCready. “As they get older, it becomes more of a demand for power. ‘I want it done my way. I want it done now. I’m not going to take no for an answer.’ If we are meeting our kids’ needs for belonging they are less likely to be demanding in negative ways.”
She gives examples of the difference between reasonable requests and “entitlement issues”. It is reasonable to pack a school lunch for your six-year-old; it is not reasonable for your 16-year-old to expect you to make her lunch every day. It is reasonable that your child wants extra stories and snuggles when he is sick; but “it’s an entitlement issue if he demands five stories, two trips to the bathroom, a back rub and one more drink of water before he’ll go to bed”, says McCready. “The litmus test is how you feel — a gut check. If you feel annoyed by the request or put out, or have to jump through hoops to meet the child’s demands, it’s very likely an entitlement issue.”
According to the author, the most important tool for parents is “mind body soul time”. “This gives kids what they are truly entitled to: one-on-one time and attention.” She describes it as child-focused time for 10 to 15 minutes daily, being with the child and doing some-thing he or she loves, such as watching music videos or playing. “It’s just time together, no reprimands, no to-do lists. Family time is important but when other siblings are around, even your spouse, it takes time from that one child. So this is a one-parent-one-child activity.” Most parents who do this daily see dramatic differences in their children’s behaviour. “The more we give kids on an emotional level, the less likely they are to demand our attention and the less likely they are to pull those entitled attitudes,” she says.
She calls another tool “time for training”. “Parents need to step back and think of all the things they do for their children that they could really do themselves,” she says. “For a small child it might be putting on their shoes every day, or for older kids it’s doing their own laundry. Our goal is to create capable kids so that when they leave our house to go to university, or whatever the next step is, we want them to be competent and able to look after themselves.”
McCready prefers to use the phrase “family contributions” instead of “chores”: “The word ‘chores’ denotes drudgery but with ‘family contributions’ it sends the message that the child is making a difference, and fosters a sense of signifi-cance.” In the book, McCready lists tasks that are appropriate from the age of 2 to 18.
Older children can be resistant to helping out, she acknowledges. “When a child is grumbling or complaining, parents say things like, “I don’t ask you to do much” or “Everybody has to help around here”, and that only fuels a power struggle. It’s better to empathise and say you know that unloading the dishwasher is a boring job, because you dislike it too, but it has to be done — that puts you on the same team.”
Parents can also use the “when . . . then” tool. “A ‘when . . . then’ routine would sound like this,” she says. “When you have tidied your room then you can watch TV. You can ask an older child, ‘What is your plan? To tidy your room/do your homework?’ Which makes it clear that the responsibility is on them.”
A no-rescue policy is important for “frequent forgetters”, McCready says. “Anybody can make a mistake and forget something, so this is only for repeated issues. It’s simply letting the child know that from now on he is going to be responsible for remembering to do his homework, or that you are not going to drive to school if she has forgotten her ballet shoes. Then you have to set them up for success, create a system to help them remember whatever it is that they frequently forget and let them know that you feel confident that he or she is grown-up enough to handle that responsibility.”
The author explains the difference between praise and encouragement. “We tell kids how smart they are over and over because we want them to feel confident in their abilities. Unfortunately, research shows that praising intellect (rather than hard work, perseverance, etc) can actually undermine a child’s willingness to try more challenging work for fear of failing or compromising their ‘smart label’.”
Telling a child that he or she is the best does not give them anything that they can apply to another situation, she says. In the book, McCready gives examples of praise versus encouragement. Instead of saying “You’re the best big sister ever”, a parent should say “You were so patient with your sister when you helped her to get dressed”. Instead of saying “Great job”, a parent should say “I really appreciate your help”.
McCready offers strategies on how to deal with some of the most common entitled phrases, such as: “But all my friends do it!” or “All the other kids at school have one!” She says: “If the answer is no, you have to stay firm and hold your ground. Or if you think your child might be ready for more responsibility and freedom, another tool is ‘Convince me’, which means the child has to come up with a reasonable plan that you agree with.”
The problem is not just in our homes, she points out in the book, but in wider society as well. Those with a “me, me, me” mentality struggle with empathy and a willingness to put others first, so their friendships and relationships suffer. They come to think that the world is against them. Employers say it is difficult to find young people with the right attitudes and work ethics.
“The bottom line is that entitled kids will one day grow into narcissistic adults, demanding spouses and high-maintenance employees. That’s certainly not what we want for our kids,” says McCready.
It might seem harsh to tell children that they are no more special than anyone else on the planet, but the message frees them, McCready believes. “We put an inordinate amount of pressure on our kids, partic-ularly with over-praising. Everybody is the best . But it’s OK not to be. Unentitling our kids frees them from feelings of chronic discontent, of always chasing after the next big thing and expecting the world to revolve around them,” she says.
What is important is that children are encouraged to be their best selves. “Being good family members, being good friends and good citizens, feeling capable and contributing to the world,” says McCready. “Kids will be a lot happier if that is where their focus is.”
‘I ran down the road with his homework’
Anna Maxted, mother of three
Last week, I raced to the bus stop at 7.20am, my pyjamas on under my coat, to hand my 13-year-old his maths homework (he’d stomped off in a huff, having been refused a lift, and my kindness was coldly received). A friend similarly reports puffing down the road with her daughter’s planner. The response: “Oh my goodness, you’re not wearing a bra!”
I seem to have reached the unenviable stage where my kids believe that my skivvying after them is the norm. The more I do, the more they expect. My slavish efforts are barely acknowledged, let alone appreciated. I suspect, however, that my mollycoddling is the modern version of benign neglect. My husband and I aren’t teaching our children the skills that will help them to become successful adults: the ability to take responsibility and learn from mistakes.
Frankly, we need to let our darlings suffer and fail. Our lack of confidence — in them, in our own instincts — is teaching them to be useless and self-absorbed.
Last week, friends came to dinner and afterwards we played Uno. My husband explained the rules. Except one 14-year-old, new to the delights of the game, disagreed. She was losing. The rules were unfair. Incensed, she shouted at my husband, “No! You’re wrong!” Her mother said, “Actually, Lucy has a point.” My husband politely deferred.
A friend’s neighbour went out while her 16-year-old son threw a party. My friend complained (the music was at club level). The boy, surprised, told her, “My mum says it’s my right to play music till 11.”
Meanwhile, another friend tells of a play-date where the four-year-old told the nanny not to speak, and her mother purred, “In this case, I agree with Amelia.” Another acquaintance includes her eight-year-old in every decision. Is that child happy and secure? No, because she’s absorbed the message that no one is in charge, that the adults are inept because they are taking the advice of an anxious little person with very few years of life experience.
My kids aren’t monsters. They’re intelligent, witty, often charming, sometimes kind. When they are bad, though, they are horrid. Is there a place to consider others, in their myopic world?
They decide that we’re getting a dog (“Yeah, I’ll walk it”), what we’re eating for dinner (“Not pasta; something proper!”), where we’re going away (“England sucks — I want a plane holiday!”). As long as they’re doing well at school we, and many parents like us, tolerate it.
Because most of our parents lived by the rule of Never Apologise, Never Explain, our generation — still smarting — prides itself on being permissive, inclusive and able to listen. We’re so frightened of being bad parents, of making a mistake, that we’re abdicating our responsibility — to guide and educate — by spoiling, pampering and not daring to say, “No / because I say so / conversation over” in case they hate us.
While I want to acknowledge and consider my children’s rights, it’s about time my husband and I admitted that we do actually know best. Teens have the knack of making us feel guilty. Often, we say yes, not because we are so permissive and cool — but because we’re lazy, weak and don’t want a fight. If we don’t set boundaries, the result is rude, self-entitled children, who demand respect but don’t give it. I need to remember to kindly tell my children “No”. If their selfishness is never challenged, if they’re never allowed to suffer a consequence of their actions, they’ll stay helpless.
How to raise self-reliant kids
Getting out in the morning
At the ages of seven and eight, make a list of what your children need to take to school each day and pin it up so you can gradually pass the responsibility to them, although you will still need to check their bags (Rachel Carlyle writes). From nine to ten, allow them to be late for school if they’re dawdling. Once they’re at secondary school, agree a morning routine but stress it’s their responsibility to pack their bags and charge their phone. It’s vital that you never jump in the car with forgotten violins or food technology ingredients, even if a detention is looming; this is how they learn to live with the consequences of their (non) actions.
The power of pocket money
It’s useful from the age of five (seven at the latest) to impart the values of perseverance, patience and responsibility, says Ron Lieber, the author of The Opposite of Spoiled (Harper Collins, £18.99). Don’t dole out a token £2; work out what you expect it to pay for first. The average amount of pocket money for 8 to 15-year-olds in the UK is £6.20 a week. Lieber advises encouraging them to split it into three jars: spend, save and give, to encourage responsibility. From 10 to 12, switch to a monthly allowance to include buying presents, music, cinema trips, etc, and from 14 to 15 try an annual allowance to cover all their needs, including clothes and sport equipment — and don’t bail out teens if they’ve made a poor decision.
“Studies show that children who do chores tend to develop a general can-do, want-to feeling,” says the psychiatrist Dr Edward Hallowell. Clare Paterson, the author of Grow Up!, (Rodale, £8.99) suggests that by ten children should change their own bedding, and dust and vacuum; by 12 add in loos and bathroom and by 13 basic DIY such as using a screwdriver and changing lightbulbs. Saturday jobs are a great way to foster responsibility in older teens (only 20 per cent now have them).
Only 6 per cent of journeys to primary school in Britain are unaccompanied (and only 36 per cent in secondary school), yet children are capable of walking to school alone from the age of nine, if you’ve taught them how to cross a road and given them little tastes of independence (such as crossing a quiet road to post a letter aged seven to eight). It’s about gradually feeding them the skills for greater independence, says the parenting author Karen Doherty. By year 6 (aged 10-11), they should be walking to the shops with a friend and using public transport for shopping trips. By year 9 (aged 13-14), most should be capable of an early evening trip to the cinema with a friend.
Why are we still putting ten-year-olds to bed? “You should always be testing the water a little, to see what they are capable of doing,” says Karen Sullivan, the author of You Want to Do What? By the age of eight they are perfectly capable of doing the “grooming” side of bedtime on their own: run their own bath (and wash in it), dry themselves, put on PJs, brush teeth and go to the loo. Then parents need only do the pleasurable bits: reading a story and tucking in.
From seven, children have good enough motor skills to be taught how to use a sharp knife safely and make a sandwich. By ten, they are capable of using the kettle, toaster and microwave, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. From 10 and 11, they should be able to cook a simple meal such as spaghetti bolognese with some guidance, says Paterson. At 12, they should be able to cook a meal for the household.