Manners & Misdemeanors
Are We Making Our Children Feel Like We Owe Them Things?
“You could be sending the wrong signal to your kids, that by simply being born they have become entitled to certain things.”
IMAGE Wikimedia Commons
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When my children were small, my mom and I inadvertently started a tradition of celebrating their birthdays with a party. In the beginning it was held at Mom’s—it was her idea in the first place—and later I just carried on routinely in my own home.

Dad didn’t think it a good idea at all and said so again and again. Actually the children’s parties were simple garden affairs: rented little tables and chairs with balloons tied to them, spaghetti, mini-hamburgers, hotdogs on sticks, ice cream, inexpensive giveaways, games like musical chairs, a piñata—surely nothing that even remotely approximates the outrageously lavish children’s parties I see these days. But Dad was making a farsighted point.

“You could be sending the wrong signal to your kids,” he warned, “that by simply being born they have become entitled to certain things.”

He himself did not mind partying, but only for “real milestones, real accomplishments,” occasions that, for children to reach they definitely will have to have lived a bit longer, he pointed out.

Indeed, feelings of entitlement could arise in children from the most innocent acts, like enrolling them in an exclusive school, thus putting them in contact with children of the very rich, a situation that in fact inspired a summer refrain of privation from my own children: “The beach again? But Mom, my friends are all going to Disneyland!”

Could a simple, common, in fact classless, tradition like a birthday party for a child serve, really, to plant in him or her the seeds of any delusion of entitlement, of being owed something by Mom and Dad, nay by life itself?

Indeed, feelings of entitlement could arise in children from the most innocent acts, like enrolling them in an exclusive school, thus putting them in contact with children of the very rich, a situation that in fact inspired a summer refrain of privation from my own children: “The beach again? But Mom, my friends are all going to Disneyland!”

Being driven to and from school was another inspiration. A nonworking, stay-at-home mom, I scheduled my trips around my own children’s delivery to and collection from school. It never occurred to me to have them take public transport even when most schoolchildren their age did. But how could it have when I myself, again over Dad’s philosophical objections, had been even worse indulged? A second family car not only drove me to St. Theresa’s College and back, but also parked in the churchyard across the street, waiting all day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in case some emergency arose, as my mom, your worst-scenarist, cautioned. For her own trips, she rode with either Dad or her friends.

In contrast, a cousin had exclusive use of her family’s second car, and for a good reason: She was running a business of her own and doing well by it. To be fair, she also practiced tough love. All the same, I couldn’t help feeling uneasy seeing her parked car waiting for her unscheduled use while her children took the bus. It was at her shop where I had myself detoured and dropped off so that my own car wouldn’t be late in picking up a son who could not abide my eating one moment into his sacred schedule.

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No doubt, plenty of chances present themselves to straighten out such children, but we parents tend to pass them all up by escaping into our own convenient illusion that, once grown up, they will stop being brats.

Still, I find my situation easier than that of a mother punished by her daughter with absolute pouting silence all through the trip home whenever the car came late for her. She could only be consoled, somewhat, if there was merienda waiting—right inside the car. There, too, was the mother who made sure she had done all her day’s chores before picking up a daughter who demanded a trip straight home from school, absolutely no detours.

No doubt, plenty of chances present themselves to straighten out such children, but we parents tend to pass them all up by escaping into our own convenient illusion that, once grown up, they will stop being brats. Which reminds me of my own missed opportunity, or am I rationalizing myself: If only we had stayed longer than our mere five years in the States….

We returned to Manila before the children could develop the habit of helping with house chores or just doing things for themselves. Admittedly it didn’t help that we had brought with us a yaya, although without her and with four kids I couldn’t have survived. Anyway, if there ever was a chance, it was then and there. Once back in the contrary culture of Manila, the cause was lost. The very presence of a battery of maids defeated the very logic of childhood discipline; they did everything—even the token chores of making the beds and bringing the used plates and glasses to the kitchen, or, as one of my smart alecks remarked, “What are maids hired for, anyway?”

I may have concentrated too much on training my help and so neglected allocating time for the same lessons—life’s lessons that choose no learners actually—for my own children. Except for my only daughter, who showed an early interest in baking, the rest of the children were barred from the kitchen. In a feeble attempt to also instill in my boys some sense of home responsibility, their father and I put them in charge of the pets—for the dogs, weekly baths, removal of ticks, visits to the vet; and for the fish, feeding. Essentially still, they may have been led to believe that the good life was theirs as a lifelong entitlement. If they have turned out generally all right, surely it’s been by no one else’s grace but God’s.

But I’ve often wondered about reputedly pampered Chinese boys, those little emperors for whom entitlement is no delusion at all but a bestowal by tradition which revolves around gender, itself a cultural thorn on the side of universal equality. Despite all that, Chinese boys seem able to grow fitting into their fathers’ shoes, sometimes taking their businesses or professions to even greater heights, indeed developing altogether into nice grownups. I have a theory, formed from a more or less studied observation afforded me by a close association with some Chinese families: It is made clear to children that with entitlement comes an opposite equal burden—responsibility. And Chinese parents I know have shown it by their example of perseverance and hard work, of owing progenitors rather than being owed by them.

Indeed, my cousin never missed an opportunity to teach her children the proper attitude toward money. Instead of giving them allowances as a matter of parental duty, she made them earn them. She made them weed the garden, for instance, and put a premium on quality of work. My own children, on the other hand, got their allowances with no condition other than that the money last the week.

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I may have concentrated too much on training my help and so neglected allocating time for the same lessons—life’s lessons that choose no learners actually—for my own children.

We also saw no harm in taking our teenage children out to dine at fancy restaurants, as I do with my grandchildren now. The excuse: to teach them lessons in comportment. Again, in the once-in-a-blue-moon that her family ate out, my cousin always picked a modest restaurant, and Max’s, the populist fried-chicken place, almost always won over the others. “Better to wait before exposing them to fancy places,” she advised. Sure enough, if the choice were left to my granddaughter, she’d have us go to a hotel, and I know where that came from. She’s only ten.

As happens in not a few cases, children are indulged out of a sense of guilt, as may be the case with absentee or separated parents, parents waiting precisely for an occasion to compensate. I, with my own first marriage broken, plead guilty. I went over my head, for instance, financing a son’s European masteral studies and another’s immodest wedding.

By reinforcing children’s sense of entitlement, parents in fact commit a fundamental default: They fail to cultivate the ground on which the opposite, proper sense can develop—the sense of earned gratification, which, patient people will tell you, tastes better delayed. Delayed gratification may well be the most potent antidote against any delusions of entitlement. But how long can it be postponed? The question itself may seem to suggest an impatience arising from a sense of entitlement. Actually it is a valid question, but it can only be answered instinctively.

In certain cases gratification comes as it is earned—a job promotion, a proper life partner, rewards for achievement of various sorts. But I suppose a final gratification lies out there for one to claim—and if one lives long enough, to the time when one’s present is one’s future, as in the case of my husband and me—there’s no reason for delay. It’s time to collect on all our accrued “justified claims”, as in fact entitlements is defined.

But even at this point, certain realities, like age and health, put limitations on self-indulgence, signaling that prudence has no age exemption. So, opportunities pass us by or are passed up unregretted. We have decided, for instance, that for long trips we can now afford to fly business class, but we can’t seem to take off; too many things keep us grounded, which feels at the moment the happier choice. There are times we feel we deserve, as a last address, a newer, nicer, bigger condominium unit than the old two-bedroom we’ve had for more than ten years, and we do go prospecting. But always, in the end, we realize we’re happy and gratified where we are and will be just as happy and gratified wherever we find ourselves.

Thus, without anxiety, without any sense of lack or disfavor, we’re now collecting on our entitlements, confident we’ll get what we deserve.

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Chit Roces
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