How to give your child a rich life–without raising entitled kids

By Dr. Laura Markham

We all want to raise kids who know how to work hard to create what they want in the world. Nobody wants to raise a child who thinks the world owes him, who feels like he’s entitled to take whatever he wants. But Kara (who made the comment above) is right. We also DO want to raise a child who feels deserving of the blessings of abundance—spiritual, emotional, and yes, physical—and the rich life that should be the birthright of every child. How do we raise a child who feels deserving – but not “entitled”?

Here are eleven tips to raise a child who feels deserving and empowered — but not entitled!

1. Don’t feed your child’s emotional hunger with possessions.

Material cravings are so often a salve for the deep need all humans share to be truly seen, accepted, and cherished. Often when we feel guilty that we aren’t spending enough time with our kids, we buy them things. When your child gets demanding, that’s a red flag to stop, drop your busy-ness, and get clear about your priorities. What can you do with your child today to simply enjoy her? How can you set up rituals in your week to spend more time connecting? As the old saying goes, children thrive when you give them half as many presents and twice as much of your presence.

2. Instead of shaming, empower kids to create their own abundance.

Too often, out of our own anxiety about money, we shame children when they “want” material things. But the opposite response of giving kids everything they ask for also teaches the wrong lessons. There is a better way—we can empower our children. Consider these three approaches to your child in the toy store when you’re buying a present for her cousin’s birthday.

“Don’t even start asking…you know better than that! Don’t you ever get enough? Do you think money grows on trees? You don’t even take care of the things you have!”

This approach teaches your child that he doesn’t deserve (of course he’s deserving), that he’s greedy for wanting things (all of us want things, all the time) that his parents can’t afford the things he wants (which can lead to a sense of deprivation), and that he is powerless to get what he wants in life (which makes him feel resentful; all those riches lined up on the shelves are for other people but not for him.) The result? Something that looks a lot like entitlement, or at least looking out for number one.

What about this approach?

“I hear you, I hear you—you really want it!… How much is it?….Well…..I guess so… Do you promise you’ll be a good girl all week and really listen?”

This is bribing your child to cooperate, which always digs you into a hole. But what’s worse is that if we just hand our kids everything they want on a material level, it creates the expectation that they’ll be handed whatever they want in life, especially if they make a fuss, and promises they can’t necessarily keep. She’ll feel great for the moment, since our brains give us a hit of dopamine every time we chase, conquer, acquire. But that purchase will quickly lose its luster and she’ll be craving the next thing. That addicts her to purchasing things (or manipulating others to purchase things for her) as a way to feel good, and it gets her into the habit of acquiring more, more, more without feeling gratitude for what she has, both material and non-material.

Here’s the sweet spot:

“You really want that, I hear you…Wow, that is cool, isn’t it?…It’s not in our plan for today“ (In other words, this is not about a poverty mentality. It’s about priorities) … “I’m sorry that’s hard for you…. No, we aren’t getting that today…. I see how much you like it… Do you want me to put it on your birthday list?… You’re right, your birthday is a long way off…. But if you still want it, you can have it then…. And you know, if you really want it sooner, you can earn the money… Sure, I can think of some odd jobs that aren’t part of your normal chores… And you’re getting old enough that you could walk the dog for Mrs. Jennings, or shovel the snow this winter around the neighborhood.”

This child feels empowered. If she really wants this item, she can get it, eventually. She’s learned that anything she wants is possible, with enough hard work.

3. Empower your child by giving her the chance to learn the value of hard work.

Remember the days when kids did odd jobs all summer to earn money for a bike? Those kids knew the worth of a nickel, took care of their bikes, and felt enormously empowered. They knew they could realize their dreams by working hard. I’m not saying you can’t buy a new bike just because your child outgrew her old one, but all children need to learn that if they work hard at things, they can make their dreams come true. They learn more from earning than from just being handed things. And the pursuit of a goal is rewarding in itself.

4. Help your child learn how to hold a job.

Earning money at home is one thing, but there’s nothing as educational as working for someone outside the family for pay, which teaches real responsibility in the real world. Start when your eight year old wants something badly and her birthday’s still far off, by paying her to do tasks you wouldn’t normally expect of her (washing the car, weeding the garden). But over time, be sure this expands to odd jobs in the neighborhood (walk the neighbor’s dog or offer snow shoveling service in the winter), then to mother’s helper/babysitting jobs when it’s age appropriate, and finally to after-school or summer jobs. Even if your family has plenty and never needs your teenager to work, every teen should learn by experience what it takes to earn a dollar.

5. Role Model.

Children won’t always do what you say, but they’ll always, eventually, do what you do. If you shop for relaxation or fun, so will your child. If you “must have” the latest tech toy, your child will follow in your footsteps. If you “give back” your child will see sharing with others as a regular part of life. If you express gratitude for everything you have, so will your child.

6. Help your child learn to be accountable for damaged goods.

If kids help pay from their own savings for lost library books and cell phones, windows broken by their baseball, or tools they’ve left out to rust, they learn a valuable lesson about valuing what they have, rather than assuming someone else will simply “buy another.” Of course, you stay clear about priorities — your child is always more important than that thing he broke, you might help him with the money, and you never have to be mean about it. But you expect your child to step up and take responsibility to help make things right.

7. Counteract the message that happiness can be bought.

As parents, we need to remember that we aren’t the only ones teaching our children about life. TV is a very effective teacher, and if it has your child’s ear, it has a direct line to her brain. Studies show that most adults say they’re not affected by TV ads, but in fact those ads influence them deeply. Imagine how much more true that is for children, who get the constant media message that the goal of life is more money and more things. Ultimately, what we model and what we tell our children will matter more, but we need to confront those destructive messages directly, and when possible keep them from reaching our kids.

8. Help your child wire his brain for a different kind of reward.

Recognize that buying is an addiction, given that dopamine is released when we get what we pursue. It isn’t wanting that gets us into trouble, it’s WHAT we want and pursue. Material things don’t satisfy our hunting urge for more than a day or so before we crave more. So notice what you pursue, and help your child discover the emotional rewards of other kinds of chases besides shopping and acquisition. No, he can’t hunt a mastodon, but how about the pursuit of mastery, with something he’s passionate about? A child who loves playing basketball, cooking, writing, music—any passion—practices it, builds resilience, and along the way wires his brain to find fulfillment in a different kind of chase. This is the kind of reward that lasts.

9. Give back as a family.

Children need a context to appreciate what they have, which means they need to see that while they may not have everything they want, they have more than enough. When they see that others have less, children usually feel moved to share, and become more appreciative of what they have and less focused on getting more. Give your child the opportunity to discover how good it feels to help others.  What can kids do? Bake pies to donate. Sort food at a food bank. Help you deliver Meals on Wheels. Organize a book drive and ship the books off to Reader to Reader. You’ll find lots of suggestions online.

10. Educate yourself.

You aren’t raising your child in a vacuum. Our culture is centered around consumption — accumulating more and more stuff. You and your kids are surrounded by messages that buying stuff will make your life better, and it’s so hard not to respond to that drumbeat. I highly recommend the short video The Story of Stuff which will make you laugh, change the way you look at things, and maybe change the way your family lives.

11. Live the values you want to pass on to your child.

What matters most to you? The people you love? Doing good in the world? Following your passions and contributing them to the world? I’m betting you didn’t say “Stuff.” Kids need to hear explicitly, and to see you demonstrate, what matters most, so they learn that life holds huge abundance beyond achievement and accumulating material possessions.

Notice a thread here? If kids today feel entitled, it’s not because they’re “bad.” It’s because we’re raising them in a culture of entitlement, one that values acquiring stuff over developing our unique gifts to contribute to the world, and even over being a good human being. It’s because when they want connection and validation, we give them stuff. To help kids change, we have to examine our own lives and assumptions.

The good news is that these practices do work to raise kids who aren’t “entitled.” What’s more, they make your life better. Because when we take the emphasis off stuff, we shift it to where it belongs: Connecting and contributing, which create lasting, rather than momentary, happiness.


Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.