THE BLOG
12/14/2014 05:10 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2015

'Tis The Season for Kids Who Are Ungrateful, Entitled Brats

Here come the holidays! Get ready -- kids WANT things. They will whine! They may even do or say things that make you think they are majorly spoiled brats.

They aren't.

But this cultural tale, writ large on the pages of our society (and parenting blogs), is both pervasive and damaging. We are constantly reminded of how today's kids are ungrateful, selfish heathens. One family went so far as to cancel the gift portion of Christmas, punishment for poor attitudes from their three boys.

I think it's less true that "kids these days" are more indulged than ever, and truer that every adult cohort that ever existed has thought the generation behind it to be the MOST self-centered and spoiled one yet.

In an article for the Washington Post, author Alfie Kohn makes a solid argument that this selfish, narcissistic phase of humanhood is just that -- a phase. He states, "In short, 'every generation is Generation Me. That is, until they grow up.'"

Let's face it -- we all feel entitled and even ungrateful at times. That's just part of being a human. It's especially part of being a small, growing person who is steadily working through a predictable series of tasks and milestones. It begs the recently asked question: What if everybody understood child development?

It makes sense that parents have short fuses around any smidgen of entitlement we see in our kids -- we want our children to get along with others and be successful out in the larger community -- a place that seems to have NO tolerance for even a whiff of these behaviors.

However, the fact that these feelings and attitudes aren't generally accepted in the public sphere is no reason to come down hard on them at home. Children can't possibly keep their brains and emotions regulated enough to integrate all of our culture's social norms in a short three, or nine, or even 15 short years.

Human childhood is LONG -- the part of the brain that excels at calming strong emotions (and delaying gratification!) isn't fully developed until age 25 -- so the less freaked out we get that they aren't "behaving perfectly," the better. Responsive, calm, connected guidance is always more effective than reactive, heated punishment.

What I'm saying is there are developmental and biological reasons for many of their annoying behaviors; it isn't a character or moral issue. Even if your child sometimes acts like a brat -- they are not a brat. Here are some more new ways to think about selfishness, entitlement and ingratitude:

  • Ironically, your child will be less inclined to act bratty if you can bring some relaxed, calm attention to them when they behave that way. A super easy strategy to use when you hear a sassy tone is to bust out some role-reversal on them and act like they are the boss: "Yes sir! Right away sir!" It gets them laughing and reduces tension every single time. (You already know you're the boss, right? No need to get offended or indignant and rub it in.)
  • When you think of the word, "entitlement," replace it with the word, "worthiness." It will help you respond instead of react when faced with these types of behaviors. When we perceive our kids as "brats," we get triggered and emotional, which makes it much harder to treat them with kindness and respect. Instead, tell yourself it's good they feel worthy -- and they will outgrow being self-centered.
  • There are many areas in life in which you want your child to feel entitled. For example, when negotiating a salary for their first job. (No one told me I should feel entitled to ask for more -- I took the salary offered and had to live with it.) Also, when faced with a diagnosis or suggestion from a health care provider. Don't you want your children to grow up questioning authority and feeling entitled to a second opinion?
  • Often the real issue hiding behind a façade that looks like entitlement or a lack of gratitude is grief. Yes, grief. When I want something, and can't have it, that is a loss to be grieved. My son once needed to grieve the wrong bowl. A perceived loss is difficult to move past when feeling it is downright discouraged.
  • To facilitate the grief process you can validate and acknowledge your child's feelings; "It certainly is hard when you don't get everything you want." This is so very different from sending a message that they should not feel desire at all, which we are very likely to do when we think our kids are acting like ungrateful brats.
  • Selfishness is sometimes necessary! Healthy relationships are not ones in which people give endlessly and selflessly of themselves. In all the good relationships I know of, each person negotiates their individual needs and desires. I will cite neither my own early relationship horror stories, nor teen dating statistics to prove this point.

Reframing these undesirable qualities helps slow the swift slam of condemnation that comes when we see them in our homes. These characteristics need not define our children. Most are fleeting emotions and states of development. Don't pile on the guilt and shame! As they say: "What resists, persists." Instead of requiring them to contort themselves to stay in your good graces -- by suppressing and denying these unpleasant feelings -- help guide them through their difficult stages of development.

I don't know anyone who is gracious, kind, empathetic and full of gratitude 24 hours out of every single day! These are qualities and states-of-being that we practice and cultivate over time. If we want our kids to grow up to be compassionate, successful change-makers, instead of complaint, selfless rule-followers, we're going to have to change the way we think about humans and the way we treat children -- no matter how they're behaving.

Sarah is Mom to a spirited six year-old and takes her own parenting advice every day. She blogs at sarahmaclaughlin.com and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.