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Remember being on a date and knowing within the first 20 minutes, ‘Wow, this person is a real jerk?’ Similarly, it’s easy to see that Kevin is the office jerk, and that woman in line at Starbucks is being rude to the barista? You guessed it, she’s a lady-jerk. A funny thing happens to our jerk-radar though when we cross into parenthood. When we become parents, our jerk-radar suddenly breaks under the sheer weight of the love we feel for our child.
Let me explain: We love our children so much that we forget those adult wankers didn’t just wake up one day and decide, “Today is the day I become an entitled asshat!” They were given those values (or lack thereof) in early childhood. Parents are faced with little decisions every day, the outcome of which either instills a sense of entitlement and selfishness, or values of humility and general coolness. Unfortunately, these teachable moments often come in a confusing disguise: Our adorable child wanting something. Something that doesn’t seem like a big deal and that’s easy to give them because we love them so much. Now fast forward 18 years, and your kid is the next office Kevin or Starbucks lady.
As a professional parent coach with over 17 years experience, I see this behavior repeated all the time by parents. And while it may be a well-camouflaged trap and easy to fall into, there are ways to avoid raising the next generation of entitled adults. Here are seven to get started:
Teach Them the Art of Self-Soothing
As young as 3-months-old, your little bundle of joy (or bundle of rage, depending on their mood) is already learning the power of the cry. At that age, 90 percent of their shrieks will be for a legitimate reason that requires your love and attention. That other 10 percent, though, is them testing the waters ⏤ learning that crying will suck you in so you can snuggle them. Not at bad thing by any means, but try this on for size: From 3-12 months, when they cry, ask yourself the following two questions before you rush in:
- Have their needs recently been met? Have they been fed, burped, changed, and did they sleep?
- Is it possible they are fine spending a couple of minutes learning to entertain themselves?
If their needs are met and you don’t rush over, you are actively teaching them the life skill of self-soothing and independence. These skills will snowball in a good way as they get older.
Don’t Reward Tantrums
In the toddler years, from wobbly walkers to 3-year-olds, you will have plenty of daily opportunities to tell your child ‘no’ and teach them that screaming and whining won’t achieve their desired outcome. This is a much deeper topic than can be covered here, with so many ‘WTFs’ and ‘Yea buts’ to consider. The basic idea is this: Human nature dictates that we learn quickly which behavior works to get us the things we want. Once your child sees that screaming or whining works, they will keep doing it. Because, hey, it is fast and effective! When you set age-appropriate limits and expectations, and get comfortable telling that adorable little monster ‘no,’ you’ve already won half the battle.
Model Polite Behavior
But wait, what’s the other half of the battle? Simple, it’s teaching them what does work to get your attention and achieve their desired outcome: Speaking nicely, remaining calm, and saying, “Please and thank you” for starters. It’s important that you model these behaviors for them, but be patient, this isn’t a one and done lesson. Stay consistent with your boundaries and modeling polite behavior and they will catch on.
While you should always model good behavior for your kids, as they get older you can introduce the more complex notion of cause-and-effect with regards to choice. For example, you can say things like: “If you choose to leave your Legos out after I ask you to clean up, then, unfortunately, they will be put away until tomorrow. If you choose to clean them up when I ask, then they will be there to play with again after lunch.” This is teaching them that their choices result in a controllable outcome. It can be a great choice with a positive outcome, or a poor choice with a negative outcome. And it teaches two long-term lessons: that their choices and actions don’t exist in a vacuum, and that it’s important to take personal responsibility for their behavior ⏤ a trait not typically attributed to jerks.
Teach empathy by helping them label their feelings. If they can identify how they feel, they’ll more easily identify when their friends or siblings are having big feelings too. It will sound like this: “It seems like you’re feeling frustrated with this puzzle,” or “It seems like you’re feeling disappointed your friend couldn’t make it to the playground.” These kinds of observations will help your child connect the dots and feel empathy for others.
Don’t Be a Jerk
I’m just gonna slide this one in here… Don’t be a wanker! The best way to ensure you don’t raise a jerk is to model non-jerk behavior in front of your kids. They. Are. Always. Watching what you do ⏤ even when you think they aren’t. They are soaking up your actions and words and learning right from wrong by watching every move you make. How you treat your spouse, how you treat the guy at the grocery store, how much (or hopefully little) road rage you show on the drive to school. And this is a big one that many parents forget: They’re also paying attention to how you speak about other people who are not there ⏤ a teacher, for example. Model being kind, and it will naturally be part of your child’s moral compass.
Stop Trying to Solve Their Problems
Give them two gifts: First, let them learn to problem solve; Second, let them contribute to the family chores. These are closely related. As tempting as it is to swoop in and do things for your kids, doing so puts them on the fast track to learned helplessness. This coupled with not having to contribute to family chores translates into something ugly: The very real belief that they are entitled to people doing things for them in childhood and adulthood. And that is not cute at any age.
Kylee Sallak is a parent coach and a pediatric sleep coach in New York City, and the founder of Parenting Made Joyful. She has 17 years of experience working with families and young kids.