Earlier this year, Rachel Canning, a high school senior from Morristown, sued her parents for refusing to pay her college tuition—Rachel claimed her parents financially abandoned her at age 18. Her father told a different story, saying Rachel had run away from home because she didn’t want to follow simple house rules, like doing minor chores and obeying a reasonable curfew.
About a month later, Rachel dropped the lawsuit and returned home, but her story received national media attention as people across the country expressed outrage over the teen’s sense of entitlement and her convictions about what her parents “owed” her.
The Canning family’s story illustrates a growing feeling that teens today feel they “deserve” more and are less willing to work for it. Why are today’s teens so entitled?
One reason may be due to the powerful influence of social media. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all function to some degree as digital bragging platforms, broadcasting consumption in high-resolution detail. A teen may think, “Everyone has stuff, why shouldn’t I?” says Maurice Elias, PhD, a psychology professor at Rutgers University. For teens, seeing three or four Facebook posts from friends with houses on the shore may lead to the inaccurate assumption that “everyone” has a shore house.
What’s more, social networks don't show the hours and years of earning required (on their peers’ or peers’ parents part) for those kids to acquire their iPhones or luxe summer trips. “Social media and technology can create the illusion that everything is available immediately. Digital media makes it easy for teens to feel as if they can have what they want when they want,” says Elias.
Advertising doesn’t help. Jean Twenge, PhD, author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled and More Miserable Than Ever and co-author of a 2013 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin study, found that an increase in the amount of advertising targeted at young adults might be another factor contributing to an eroding work ethic. Like with social media, “Advertising rarely shows the work necessary to earn the money necessary to pay for the advertised products,” says Twenge.
What About That Work Ethic?
Twenge’s study suggests that today’s young adults want more money and material possessions, but are less willing to work hard to earn these things, as compared to previous generations. Twenge says, “That type of 'fantasy gap' is consistent with other studies showing a generational increase in narcissism and entitlement.”
And even for kids who are working hard—and they’re out there—this hard work may be what’s making parents more indulgent, inadvertently creating a sense of entitlement. Suniya Luthar, PhD, foundation professor of psychology at Arizona State University and author of “The Problem with Rich Kids” (Psychology Today, Nov. 2013), says, “Today’s teens do face more stressors than prior generations. The competition to get into high-ranking colleges is much stiffer. Parents see their kids struggling with busy schedules, working hard at school and trying to balance extracurricular commitments. They may feel they want to reward their child or make their child’s life easier.”
For example, parents of hard-working kids may be more willing to buy their teens expensive items or allow them to break rules, such as curfew. Or they may be reluctant to give them simple responsibilities at home, such as doing their laundry or setting the dinner table, and justify it by saying, “He stays up so late doing homework, I can’t ask him to clear his dinner plate.” Allowing teens to forgo simple chores and basic manners creates a sense of entitlement.
Got an Entitled Teen? (Good for you for admitting it.)
Here’s how to put an end to it:
- Recognize it and own it: It can be hard for parents to admit they’ve made parenting mistakes. David Bredehoft, PhD, co-author of the book How Much is Too Much? Raising Likeable, Responsible, Respectful Children—from Toddlers to Teens—In an Age of Overindulgence, says, “It’s human nature to see a problem in others and yet deny it in ourselves.” Recognizing there’s a problem and admitting that you have some role in it is the first step towards correcting it.
- Pick one thing to work on: Assign one or two household chores to be completed each week. Don’t be surprised if your teen is resistant or upset. Elias says, “Sometimes parents who want to avoid conflict with their children ‘give in,’ especially if their child persists, demands, cries or induces guilt.” Be consistent and follow through.
- Forgive past parenting mistakes: No parent sets out to raise a rude and unappreciative teen. Parents try their best, but sometimes, good intentions go awry. Bredehoft says, “Use various resources—parenting groups, books, online blog sites for support and guidance.”
- Model good behavior: Kids are always watching their parents. If parents tell their child, “Say please and thank you” but then treat others (a waitress, clerk or spouse) with a lack of respect, the child won’t think manners or being grateful are really important. Modeling is a powerful tool.
- Establish rules and responsibilities: Bredehoft coined the term “soft structure” to describe a house without rules or responsibilities and says it's a big cause of entitlement issues. Being a contributor to the family by doing tasks such as chores around the house builds self-confidence and lets teens know that to get they also need to give.
- Let teens contribute financially: “It is okay for teens to want things and to get them through their own hard work,” says Luthar. If a teen wants an extravagant item, have them save towards it. Or split the cost and let them work to earn their half.