I readily admit that I am a dinosaur and perhaps a bit of a curmudgeon. I grew up at a time when children and teens said please, thank you and may I. Everyone called their parents’ friends Mr. or Mrs., never by their first name. Sneakers were only worn to play ball, and even public school girls always wore skirts or dresses. When we went out to dinner as a family we dressed up. Every man wore a hat outdoors until JFK, and people even dressed up to go to a ball game. No one ever talked back to a teacher, and getting a note sent home for misbehavior meant a sore tush. There were and always will be those who pushed boundaries, but by and large there was a sense of propriety, and respect for parents, teachers and other authority figures.
This same attitude carried over to summer camp. Counselors were shown deference, campers went to activities and everyone wore white or blue and white for Shabbat. Part of that had to do with the times and the fact that camp counselors were at least 18 and had to participate in a training course.
My, how things have changed! Manners are almost non-existent, non-day-school and outside-school dress codes if they exist are minimal, sneakers are omnipresent, respect for teachers and parents isn’t automatic, a potch in tuches can land you in jail and even the language used by today’s kids is less than refined. In summer camps counselors as young as 15 or 16 have little or no training. Campers today are very independent. If the schedule calls for swim or arts and crafts, campers in many camps will simply refuse to go. They’d rather play basketball or hockey all day or sit with their video games, do their nails or just hang out. Counselors can’t do much about it since the camp wants the bunks to be full. Adding insult to injury, campers have been heard to say “My parents are paying your salary so you can’t tell me want to do.” In turn, counselors want their tips so they don’t rock the boat. It’s a vicious cycle.
My experience with this phenomenon is limited to the East Coast. I have been told by colleagues, however, that the further one gets from New York, the better the middos. Also, it seems somewhat better in some (by no means all) schools on the far right. It is also important to note that the parents of today’s children also demonstrate similar attitudes and behaviors. This generation creates its own norms which are radically different from those of their parents. It seems to have started in the ’80s. I cannot pinpoint all the reasons for this entitlement shift in a short article but I can try to define and analyze it.
Viewed in historical terms, the image many Jewish teenagers and preteens have of their milieu represents a decisive break with the past. The sense of uniqueness, of special destiny, seems to be fading. Jewish life is conceived of as upper middle class, non-ideological and entirely consonant with the dominant modes and values of American life. They tend to live in a vast, self-enclosed Jewish universe. Many an entitled preteen or teenager is confused about what’s deserved, what’s earned and what’s a gift. Some are unwilling to accept personal responsibility for themselves. Entitled teens have high demands of everyone but themselves. Entitled kids do what they want, ignore adults and control the emotional climate in the family. This is perhaps an overgeneralization but it applies to many in our community.
What are the signs of an entitled child? One who doesn’t accept personal responsibility for himself. Entitled teens have high demands of everyone but themselves. Entitlement is a feeling a child may have but is very unlikely to express directly. Here are some indications of an entitled child.
They can’t handle being told “no.” They melt down, pout or put up a battle every time you turn down a request. An immediate “yes” is the only way to avoid a fight.
They show no signs of sincere gratitude. Why should they be grateful for what they believe they are “owed”? A forced “thanks” is a rarity. An ungrateful child is a sign of an entitled child.
They have a long list of demands. If you walk through a store getting barraged with demands for nearly everything you walk by, you probably have an entitled child.
They’ve got a “no can do” attitude. Asking them to make their own sandwich or pick up their room is asking too much. So is the notion of a job to pay for “wants” and extras.
They’re constantly comparing. It’s always “not fair.” They’re not afraid to ask for the best and the first.
What caused this to happen? Some parents do not set defined limits. They let their kids have the freedom to make their own mistakes. Other parenting models exist where one parent is the strict disciplinarian while the other is more empathetic. Ultimately this lack of child-rearing agreement and consistency leads to a lack of any control. Some parents spoil their children, make no demands, set no consequences and rationalize their lack of structure with their laid-back philosophy. Often such parents grew up in strict households where they learned to fear confrontation. They decided that they would do whatever needed to be done to not be like their parents, swinging, however, too far to the other side.
Children need structure. They don’t have fully developed prefrontal lobes, i.e., a fully functioning rational brain. They may learn from the consequences of their actions, but they might be flunking out of school or getting in other trouble in the process.
Note that much of this does not apply to the Second Generation, whose survivor parents overcompensated for their own childhood. The current generation is not in this category. This has been examined and studied extensively and is not our focus.
How we recognize these issues and how we deal with them will be discussed in Part II.
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene is a veteran educator, parent and grandparent and has observed family dynamics for many years.