Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Age of Entitlement

 My last post, Hello Sunshine, touched upon the effects of a cheerful greeting.  One reader shared her observation that today's kids are not being taught to greet people as they enter a room.  It got me thinking about the importance of teaching our children this common courtesy.  Children have as much to gain as adults in greeting others pleasantly.  And it struck me that our failure to teach this basic social skill might be a side effect of what teachers today refer to as "entitlement".  Entitlement is a buzzword in schools everywhere.  It refers to the attitude of many parents and children that they have the right to get whatever they want simply because they want it. To me it brings to mind a titled monarch; someone to whom others owe allegiance.  So many parents seem driven to shield their children from any unpleasantness in life while simultaneously pushing them ahead as far as they can. Teachers are no longer considered authority figures.  If a child doesn't do his homework for example, it's not uncommon for his parent to make excuses and argue that he not be penalized.  Some of us remember being in trouble at home if the teacher called to discuss our behavior.  Today, parents are more likely to place the blame for a child's misbehavior elsewhere:  on the teacher, the school, or the other students. A colleague of mine once dealt with a difficult parent over the phone.  His fifth grade son had been acting aggressively on the school bus, and actually bit another child. The father ranted about the other kids, the bus driver, the school's responsibility, until my friend said to him, "At some point, you're going to have to stop defending him and let him take responsibility for his actions.".  I could have kissed her.

 Entitlement is selfishness.  It dismisses the needs, feelings, and rights of other people.  I'm not sure that we can pinpoint a specific origin for this phenomenon, and I don't believe that it began solely with parents.  It may have begun years ago, when psychologists and others became concerned with the development of children's self-esteem.  This led to over-praising children, accepting mediocre work as a "good job" or effortless scribbles as "beautiful".  Many parents, for various reasons, are reluctant to say "no" to their children, so kids are accustomed to getting what they want.  (Take a look at my post "All You Need Is Love" for more on this).   Or it may be that a sense of entitlement stems from our stressed out, achievement oriented society, where getting ahead is a top priority. The  very term "getting ahead" implies competition; ahead of someone else.  We push our children to get into the best schools, to get top grades, to pad their college resumes with extracurricular activities.  And schools contribute to this feeling of competition as teachers and students struggle to meet the demands of more standardized tests and rigorous academics pushed down to younger and younger grades.  In addition, parents today may be more protective of their children because the world is a scarier place than it used to be.  Leaving children to play outdoors unsupervised is not an option for most families, so we keep them under our constant guard.  Children believe that they are special and that mom and dad will take care of all their needs.  But the job of parenting is to raise our children to be independent.  We need to guide them to make smart decisions and then to be accountable for their decisions.  It's important to learn to follow rules and protocols in order to be a responsible citizen.  We can't fix all of our children's problems, and we actually cause more harm than good by trying to do so.

No one wants a spoiled, coddled child.  How can we reasonably protect our children  without sheltering them in a gilded bubble?   How can we advocate for their best interests while teaching them to take care of themselves?   There is a terrific parenting book that addresses this problem.   It's called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel, PhD, and was a cult favorite several years ago. It is a wonderful resource for raising resilient, self-reliant children.  The author basically promotes the idea that falling down, scraping a knee, making mistakes, even getting hurt, are all healthy steps on the road to growing up.  We want our children to learn to grow from their mistakes, not to avoid them.

A focused greeting can offset a sense of entitlement by forcing a child to acknowledge the presence of other people.  It can take her out of her own head for a minute and  demonstrate respect.  When I was a little girl, my parents would coach my siblings and me before every visit to friends and family.  We had to kiss every adult in the room hello, and then again when it was time to say good-bye.  We were not allowed to call any adult by their first name.  We were taught to look behind us as we went through a door, so that we could hold it open for anyone who might be following.  We learned to wait on lines and to only talk to people when they were in the same room as us.  We were expected to clean up our own mess, wherever we were.

These lessons work equally well today.  When we held kindergarten orientation programs in my former school, I included a bus orientation.  I taught the children to line up to enter the bus and to say "hello" to the bus driver.  I reviewed all the procedures that would keep them safe, then taught them to say  "thank you" to the bus driver as they exited. People who serve us, such as bus drivers, waiters, gas station attendants, etc., should not be made to feel invisible.  They are doing us a favor (yes, even though they're getting paid to do so).   Acknowledging them and the nice things they do for us shows respect and gratitude. 

 There are a couple of things on the educational horizon that I believe will cause the downfall of the Age of Entitlement.  One is the new approach to teaching called 'growth mindset'.  In a fixed mindset, a person's abilities, intelligence, and talents are considered fixed traits that cannot be changed.  Growth mindset proposes that everyone can develop their intellect, talents and abilities through effort and persistence.  In terms of entitlement, a child with a fixed mindset is more concerned with grades than learning.  If she does poorly on an assignment, she might fight the teacher for a better grade.  On the other hand, a child with a growth mindset will be curious about her mistakes, embrace the chance to try again, and continue learning.  Teaching a growth mindset holds exciting prospects for the field of education and the potential for authentic, life-long learning.

Another trend in education today is the emphasis on projects and collaborative group work.  In the high school where I taught Spanish, many teachers assigned projects to their classes in lieu of unit tests.  For example, in one of my Spanish classes, we learned vocabulary related to homes.  I assigned a project on Antoni Gaudi, a famous Spanish architect.  The students worked in small groups to research his biography and one of his buildings.  They used this information to compose a multi-media presentation, in which one student played the role of a real estate agent, and two others were a couple looking for a residence with specific amenities.  In order to complete this project, students needed to employ a range of skills, including research, organization, writing, video and computer skills, oral language, and role play.  Projects like this require sophisticated social skills, as each student works with her team to include, modify, and build upon everyone's ideas.  Students were graded according to a rubric that addressed  individual contributions and evidence of learning as well as the quality of the end result.  This sort of assignment is a more accurate assessment of a student's learning, and better reflects the skill sets needed in today's work environments . 

Entitlement is not a pretty word.  No one is perfect.  Life is not perfect.  Let's not set our children up for unrealistic expectations.  We can teach them to try again, work harder,  take pride in their efforts and welcome challenges. We can help them to acknowledge the people they meet throughout the day and to appreciate the role that each one plays in our lives.  They can view their peers as collaborators instead of competitors, and come to know the  profound  joy of true learning.

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