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Am I rewarding bad behaviour if I give my teen the gift he expects? Add to ...

A column that tackles behavioural problems from toddlers to teens.

The problem

A common complaint about today’s teens is that they feel entitled – they think they should get whatever they desire regardless of whether they have done anything to deserve it. This leads to a holiday dilemma. Should you get your misbehaving teenager that iPhone he’s been coveting? Wouldn’t that make you an enabler?

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Emanuel’s mother: “Yes, that’s my Emanuel. He acts like a total jerk, but expects everything anyway. If I give him something nice as a holiday present, doesn’t that send the wrong message?”

Emanuel chimes in: “Well, yeah. It’s the holidays. Don’t they have to give me stuff?”

It’s a dilemma. The holiday season is a time of giving. But should you reward their less than satisfactory behaviour?

What not to do

Don’t tie holiday giving into how he behaves. The rationale behind not giving him a gift is that it will teach him a lesson.

“If I act badly, I get nothing, so I better behave if I want stuff.”

But that’s not what happens. The main problem with not giving is that all it does is feed the tired cycle of negativity. Each bad turn gets another. What you actually get is: “Why should I do anything nice, if they’re going to be mean?”

What to do

Give him what you would have given him had his behaviour been exemplary. Give him the iPhone. Maybe it won’t change his indolence or his sense of entitlement. But holidays should not be times for angry lessons. Hopefully, holidays are about celebration and love.

I think the message that goes with your gift is: “I give you a nice present because I think you will like it – that it will make you happy. And I like that you will be happy, because I love you.”

That’s the message. It’s that simple.

And hopefully what they think is: “My parent got me a nice present. And that makes me happy. I guess even though I sometimes act like a jerk – not that that isn’t their fault – they want to be nice to me anyway.”

And maybe – just maybe – he thinks: “My parent does this because with them I do have a birthright. That to them I am special. And because of this they want to give me good stuff. And I get this just by being their child. It’s a really nice deal.”

It is an entitlement. But it’s a good entitlement.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I’d Listen to My Parents if They’d Just Shut Up. E-mail him your thorny questions at awolf@globeandmail.com.

 

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