I can’t stand whining, so we’ve been working really hard to keep our kids from getting entitled. Sometimes we slip though, and it’s amazing how quickly entitlement can rear its ugly head!  Quick example: Charlie had a fever yesterday morning, so he stayed home from school.  After his temp was down, we went on a walk to the local grocery store and split a smoothie.  Then since he was sick, I thought I’d relax our usual rules and limits.  So I took him to the nearby bookstore and let him pick out a children’s book.  Then we walked by the toy store next door, and I let him get a magnifying glass that he’s wanted for forever.

Best day ever, right?  A walk with his dad, a yummy smoothie, a fun book and a magnifying glass. That’s when he turned to me and said, “Dad, can we get an ice cream too?”

We’ve learned the hard way that kids are insatiable.  As a parent, it’s hard to beat the look on your kid’s face when you hand them a lollipop.  But often they will just want more, more, more!  It’s not fun to see your kids grow entitled and feel they should get all the candy, toys and gifts that their heart desires. If you give in though, you won’t make them happy: in the short term they’ll still want even more, and in the long term, they will appreciate what they do have in life even less.

One solution is to never ever give your kids any toys, gifts, treats, candy or videos. But while I like the idea of keeping this stuff to a minimum, we also like the idea of teaching the kids how to manage these things in moderation.  Over time, we’ve developed a few ways to do that while still fighting entitlement in our kids.

Here’s what’s worked for us:

1. Whenever possible, give nothing

When we first started picking Charlie up from pre-K, he would beg to get some cones from two ice cream trucks parked right outside his school.  We got down to his eye level and told him that we would never, ever buy ice cream from those trucks.  And that it’s because it’s not right that they park out front of an elementary school, so we don’t want to reward them.  (That’s the random explanation I came up with in the moment.)

Amazingly, it worked!  When Olive asked for ice cream later, Charlie told her, “We don’t buy ice cream from them.” Now when she sees the trucks, she always tells me, “We don’t buy ice cream from them!” I’m amazed this has worked so well, since those kids sure love ice cream!

It’s counter-intuitive, but giving a little bit can make things worse than standing strong and giving nothing. Sometimes giving nothing means you can set a strong precedent and never have to deal with it again.

2. Make treats special

When we do give a big treat, we always emphasize the reason we’re doing it: to celebrate a birthday, or to reward the kids for a big project they worked hard on, or something similar.

We’ve found that it helps to make a huge deal out of each treat.  When we do take the kids to ice cream (always in a shop, not a cart or truck), we usually talk about it beforehand and afterward. It helps create the impression that these treats are special, and not something we do regularly and on a whim.

What we’ve found is that entitlement starts to kick in when the treats or gifts start to occur frequently enough that they’re taken for granted.  So limiting the frequency and regularity of treats became especially important to us.

3. Reboot your kids by taking breaks

When we notice that the kids are acting entitled towards watching videos, getting candy or treats, or anything along those lines… then we will impose a complete and total hiatus from all of those things.

This happens the most for us with watching videos.  I’m comfortable with screentime for older kids in moderation, especially if the shows are educational in nature.  But sometimes we’ll lean on them too much when we’re busy or solo parenting, and the kids will start demanding videos instead of asking for one.

When that happens, we’ll put away the iPad for a week or two to reduce screentime to essentially zero.  This works almost like rebooting your computer: the kids’ expectations around screentime get reset to the factory default settings. Can’t recommend this highly enough!

4. Set limits upfront before any treat, bribe or gift

Setting limits and boundaries upfront is the only way to go.  Giving your kids treats without limits is kind of like negotiating with a terrorist: if you give in unconditionally to their demands, they’ll just keep taking hostages and demanding more.

We learned over time that strong upfront limits can break this dynamic. For example, we often walk a few miles on a Saturday or Sunday, so we need the kids in the double stroller. If the kids aren’t staying in the stroller, sometimes we’ll need a bribe to get them in their seats. We’ve found that occasional bribes don’t create feelings of entitlement if we set very firm conditions ahead of time.

“OK guys, here is a lollipop.  You will each only get one lollipop, ok?  When this is done, you can’t ask for another and if you do, you will not get one.  Do you understand?”

This the only way I know that we can give our kids something without triggering their (innate?) hunger for more, more, more!  Before we enter a toy store, I give a similar speech.  “Ok we can go in and look around and you can show me things you want to earn later, but we absolutely will not be buying anything in the store. And if you ask me to buy anything, then we’re going to leave right away.  Do you understand?”

The limit on things is always zero or one.  I prefer to use zero as often as possible. The stricter the limit, the better the result.

5. Create alternatives to begging

One of the reasons that kids continually beg for things is that there’s no real cost to them to do so.  There is really only upside: you just might agree to their demands, or eventually give in after they’ve asked for something 10 times.

So if your son is begging for that fancy Captain America shield that he sees in the toy store you pass every day on the way to school (true story), give him an alternative to begging.  You could create a rewards chart and let him earn the shield by doing chores, maintaining good behavior, or whatever else you’d like to see more of from your kids.  Or you could give your child an allowance, and let him save up until he can buy the shield themselves.

The important thing here is to create ways that your kids can earn things other than just begging for them.  This creates a positive goal for the kids to focus on, rather than just begging until you can’t take the whining anymore.

6. Never bribe a happy kid

The other day, I ordered two water pen coloring books to keep the kids occupied in the stroller (I’d been concerned about my overuse of lollipops, so wanted to substitute a reusable experience over candy).

The coloring books came in the evening mail, and I immediately wanted to give them to the kids right away so I could see the look on their face!  Then I looked at what they were doing: drawing happily together on the floor with paper and colored pencils.  That’s when I remembered the golden rule: never bribe a happy kid.

I saved up the coloring books for later, when the kids were in the stroller on the way to the local botanic garden (a mile away).  It helped keep them busy most of the way, and lasted a lot longer than a lollipop to boot.

7. Give your kids a chance to experience the joy of giving

One time when we were in LA, Charlie’s grandma took him to the store to buy a toy she had promised him.  He picked out a toy for himself, and then asked if he could pick something for his sister.

His grandma told him that she loved that he was thinking of Olive, and I think that really stuck with him. Now we’ve noticed that he’s constantly thinking of doing nice things for his family. He’s started making little gifts for Mom, Dad and Olive: usually a collection of his drawings that he turns into little “books” using tape and staples. When he gives them to us, it gives us a chance to model good gift receiver behavior: we look closely at the book, say something we like about it, and then thank him and give him a hug.

More and more, Charlie is enjoying being on the giving side of a gift exchange. I think there’s something about a love of giving that helps inoculate kids against entitlement. We plan on incorporating more giving experiences into our kids’ lives in the years to come whether it’s donating toys to children in need or volunteering our time.

Fighting entitlement has been a constant battle in our parenting journey!  We’ve found that being consistent with the above techniques has helped us keep entitlement to a minimum. Our kids are no angels, and they’re as prone to entitlement as any other kids… so to stay on top of this, we’ve found we have to be really consistent in our parenting. Having a clear set of rules has been really helpful on that front.

How do you manage entitlement with your kids?