Dear Dr. Alasko: A common complaint my friends with kids all face is how our children have come to believe they deserve everything with little effort on their part. They seem to be getting fussier and more demanding as they get older. At school they put in some work, but even there they try shortcuts such as borrowing each other's work, taking things off the web, etc. Real study is boring. We worry how we're going to instill some hard-work efforts and self-discipline in them so they become productive adults—and hopefully won't end up depending on us for everything.
Dear Reader: Your question requires an entire book to answer because it involves developmental psychology, sociology and even philosophy. But here's my highly condensed answer.
The first issue is that humans can only truly understand what they can see, touch, hear and taste. A child must EXPERIENCE something for it to become real. For instance, a child can't really understand famine and deprivation through photos. Sure, she will intellectually know that people are starving, but that fact won't become part of her life until she can FEEL some level of actual suffering.
At the same time, our brains are designed to protect us from absorbing too much distressing information lest we become diverted from focusing on our own survival. There must be an emotional/sensory connection to a phenomenon in order for it to incorporate itself into a child's personality and decision-making structure.
This means that you can't teach a child the necessity of self-discipline, perseverance and unrelenting effort unless the child experiences these needs on a day-to-day basis. Without that, she'll ask, "Why should I?"
This brings up the endless question of why some children raised in poverty vow to never again be poor and work relentlessly to achieve success, while others become resigned to their condition. Why is one child ambitious and competitive and another not?
While we generally assign these traits to an array of innate attributes, the fact is that parental behavior has a subtle but significant influence.
In today's world of ATM's instantly dispensing money and 24/7 media messages to meet every need immediately, parents must create their own world of values within which the child comes to live. The past years of economic recession have aided in this, beginning to teach young adults that jobs don't grow on those same trees that bristle with $100 bills. But children must also experience, firsthand, disciplines that help mitigate the powerful influence of our self-indulgent society.
The most direct way for parents to impart this lesson is to tighten the money spigot. Give your children an allowance and stick to it. When you go out to eat, restrict their choices—no, they can't have a soda every time. Buy basic foods and cook them, and thus demonstrate that eating good food requires effort. When shopping, comment on the price of everything you buy and make verbal comparisons. "Wow, only 3.5 ounces for $2.99! That's really expensive!" "Chicken's on sale—let's roast one for dinner." "You want to go to Hawaii on holiday? That's thousands of dollars each. How about camping instead?"
If you yourself are disciplined about spending money—and about making choices that involve effort- your children will learn those habits in real time to a far greater degree than they will from any lecturing on attitude.
We call that modeling appropriate behavior, and it's the key to teaching children useful, practical values. Model the behavior you want your children to practice, and over time, even if frustrating in the short term, it will reap them, and you, bountiful rewards.