Practice What You Preach

Raising Responsible versus Entitled Children

Marsha B.Sauls, Ph.D.

770-668-0350 x 221

It is amazing how well our kids learn what we teach them. The only problem is that most of the things they learn from parents is communicated without words. This is probably why most parents have made the statement "If I've said it once, I've said it one hundred times and they just don't get it!" Most kids don't `get it" by listening.

Being responsible and being entitled are two abilities that are particularly difficult to teach with words. That is because a person learns to be responsible or entitled according to what he or she is rewarded for. To teach responsibility one rewards for accomplished behavior. To teach entitlement one rewards for something other than accomplished behavior. Most parents do a little bit of both.

Parents can tell if their child is responding from an entitled perspective or a responsible perspective in two ways. First, by observing and listening to the child's response and secondly, by checking out their own feelings about this response. A responsible child, when made a request of or denied something, will register displeasure and a parent may feel mildly guilty during the interchange. In short order, however, understanding is reached and life goes on.

An entitled child will begin with the same register of displeasure about being requested to do something or denied something but will continue to escalate the situation. The escalation usually takes the form of berating, belittling and comparing the parents to others. The parents' feelings move quickly past mild guilt and on to anger, helplessness, and then incompetence until an attitude of, "It wasn't worth it." prevails. The scene occurs because the child is reasoning from a set of beliefs that say in essence, "I am here to be taken care of and my main purpose and goal in life is to have fun." The parents are reasoning from a set beliefs that are founded in the premise that the child understands that parents are people too and as such they have mental, physical, and financial limits and would appreciate some emotional and physical help at times. It is at these time parents scratch their heads and wonder what is going on. What is going on is that there are two (sometimes more) people arguing, each one coming from a different perspective and each one right in their own perspective.

How does it happen that a parent who wants to teach a child to be responsible ends up in this helpless place with an entitled child who has such a different perspective? In this article an explanation of how to raise an entitled and how to raise a responsible child will be given. No one uses one or the other model 100% and it is not recommended to do so. A balance is necessary. If, however, as a parent you feel incompetent and helpless in most of your interactions with your child you may be raising a child that is too entitled and may want to model more of your interactions with your child after the responsibility model. On the other hand, if you feel you are always in control and your children usually refuse your help and are counting the days before they leave home you may be using the responsibility model too much.


According to World Book Dictionary, an entitled person is one who has a right to ask for or get something. He or she is a privileged individual. The important part of this definition is the word "right." There is no concept or understanding that the "right" is earned. It is bestowed and once given it can be exercised by the entitled person at any time with the expectation that it should be honored.

Training a child to be entitled is a very easy task. As parents we do it constantly by rewarding children for just existing. We don't require consistent behavior to be demonstrated before we give privileges. We give them because our child has reached a certain age. As the child ages, privileges are given based on what "everybody else" thinks a child can and should have at a particular age. This belief is based on the understanding that a child should be able to  demonstrate certain responsible behavior at these ages in order to achieve the rewards. Somehow, however, the request for demonstration of responsibility is lost and the only requirement for reward is age. Some parents even use their children to display their own "success" by giving their children privileges even earlier than their age warrants. As more privileges are given, the child becomes more entitled. And note, these are not rewards. They are privileges.

In this model, the parenting goal is to make the world a pleasant, satisfying, happy place for the child. It is important to parents that their children have things easier than they had things. Parents, when using the entitlement model of parenting, believe:

1) Children deserve and have the right to be happy all the time.

2) Parents need to protect their child from experiencing natural consequences that result from irresponsible behavior. For example, allowing a child off restriction in order to attend a practice so he or she can play in the game on Saturday.

3) The only way to judge a child's responsibility level is to listen to what the child says or promises he or she will do in the future.

4) When children reach a particular age they have rights to certain privileges. If they demonstrate incompetence after the right is given, the right can be taken away and the child will understand that he or she should now work for what previously was given for nothing.

The result of rewarding children because of their age is an entitled child who has lived in a world where he or she has been rewarded for existing. The child has no concept of having to earn or do something to get or maintain a reward. The entitled child has the following beliefs:

1) My life should consist of the pursuit of happiness, pleasure, and fun.

2) You owe me what I need to have a pleasant, fun life.

3) I can and should be angry when I'm requested to do something to earn what I believe is owed to me.

4) I can and should be angry when privileges are taken away because they belong to me.

As a result, the entitled child is typically belligerent, angry, usually lazy, and does not feel it's necessary to plan ahead or consider others' lives when making plans. An entitled child does not have any concept that "parents are people too" and may have some needs. An entitled child has no understanding of the fact that their own behavior can result in positive or negative consequences for them. The entitled child's favorite phrases are: "Everybody else does it. Why don't you trust me?" "It's their fault." "That's not fair!" "I need...' "I want...' "You are always on my back." And, later, "I'm leaving!"


A responsible person is defined as one who understands that there are consequences for behavior and therefore plans ahead so that the  consequences will be pleasant rather than unpleasant. To be responsible means that one has to do something or behave in a particular way. To judge responsibility therefore requires one to evaluate behavior. To teach responsibility requires a parent to reward a child for accomplished and completed behavior rather than for expected behavior or talk about future plans.

In this model, after a behavior is repeatedly demonstrated a reward is given. For example, if a child repeatedly demonstrates he or she can care for oneself then the child is given the freedom to spend the night out. The more rewards given, the more freedom the child has. And that's what most kids want. It is important to note that in this model the name for what is given is a reward not a privilege. Rewards are things that are earned. Privileges are given before the fact.

The goal for parenting in this model is for the child to learn that their own behavior controls their life. Continuous responsible behavior brings positive rewards and freedom. Continued irresponsible behavior results in rewards not being given in the first place and may result in their loss, temporarily, when mistakes are made. In this model earning something is seen as a normal and natural part of life. One gets according to how one performs.

Parents who use this model of parenting believe:

1) Parents do not have to ensure that their children are happy all of the time.

2) If natural consequences occur as the result of a child being irresponsible, such as missing an important event or being embarrassed in front of friends, it's okay.

3) It is important to communicate with their children by reading their behavior rather than only listening to their words.

4) Children are learning and will make mistakes, therefore rewards are given only after repeated consistent behavior rather than after one good deed.

In this parenting model a child learns that they don't automatically get things just because they exist. As a result, the child can respect and appreciate others efforts because they have a personal understanding of what it means to earn something. In addition they develop a personal sense of power (empowerment) and self esteem because they know that their control of their own behavior will and can determine what they get in life.

Because learning to be entitled or responsible both require rewards, one for being and the other for behavior, they are both learned over time. Therefore, to unlearn either model will also take time. If you experience your child being consistently disrespectful of you, thwarting your efforts at parenting, and find yourself feeling helpless or incompetent as a parent, your child is too entitled. To change this you will have to change your beliefs as a parent, start rewarding your child only after consistent, demonstrated positive behavior, and be willing to have your child be unhappy sometimes. An entitled child can be quite a formidable force and will fight hard to maintain the status quo. The older the child, the harder the struggle because there is a longer history of entitlements to overcome. Parenting groups, a therapist, or sometimes even a supportive, understanding friend or family member can be an invaluable support system for parents trying to change parenting models.

The bottom line is that we all learn from our experiences. If your child is not learning what you want him or her to learn, change what they experience.

Marsha B. Sauls, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice and the Director of the Atlanta Institute for Individual and Family Therapy, 1864 Independence  Square, Suite A, Dunwoody, Ga. 30338, phone:(770) 668-0350. Dr. Sauls is  the president of the Georgia Psychological Association, a Supervisor and Clinical Member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. She specializes in working with adolescents and adults, couples and families. Dr. Sauls and her husband have two college-age children.

You can contact her at her office    770-668-0360 x 221

or on the web at