In the comments to my review of Unequal Childhoods, Jen asked me what I think of Lareau’s use of the term "entitlement."  Entitlement is a bit of a dirty word these days: professors complain about how their students feel entitled to endless extensions on assignments and good grades; conservatives who think welfare is evil complain about recipients who feel entitled to food stamps or health care. 

But, is entitlement always a bad thing?  Lareau argues that the middle-class children in her study are raised to feel entitled to:

  • participate in a range of activities, whose cost is rarely discussed in front of the kids;
  • receive a significant amount of parental attention to their questions, interests, and accomplishments; and
  • to receive a level of service from outside institutions, such as schools.

This rang true to me.  And I’m fairly comfortable with the idea that I’m raising my children to feel entitled in these ways, especially the second and third. If they’re assigned to a crappy teacher, yes, I’m going to be in the principal’s office complaining.  Ideally this would result in either for the teacher being replaced or receiving some backup and remediation, but if that’s not possible, I’ll admit that I’ll probably be arguing for my kid to be in the other class.  So shoot me. 

At the heart of the objection to entitlement is the sense that things — good grades, material success — need to be earned.  And I agree, I don’t have a lot of patience for people who expect to receive excellent grades, interesting jobs, nice cars, etc. without working for them.  But I believe that the opportunity to explore interests, parental attention, and respect and reasonable accomodation from authorities are not goods that should be limited to the privileged few.

As David Shipler and Jason DeParle have both pointed out, as a group, the poor feel less entitled than you could imagine.  They don’t feel entitled to safe housing, adequate health care, or paid sick leave.  When the welfare caseworker loses their paperwork, or when their child’s learning disability isn’t diagnosed until May, they rarely complain.

If too much entitlement makes you think that you deserve good things without earning them, too little entitlement makes you think that you don’t deserve good things and you’ll never get them no matter how hard you work, so you might as well not try.

5 Responses to “Entitlement”

  1. Maggie Says:

    My sister’s learning disability wasn’t diagnosed until college. She has numeric dyslexia, and failed math every year in high school, while getting A’s in every other subject. I know my parents blamed her, not the system . . . and probably still don’t feel angry at all that this just slid by everyone who ever came into educational contact with my sister. But my parents were the kind that trust the system to work, no matter what, and probably still don’t think it’s anyone’s “fault” that Mary suffered through 4 summers of summer school to eke out C’s in math. She continues to have an inferiority complex about her intelligence – that tends to stick around if you’ve called yourself a dummy for 18 years.
    If entitlement means that I think there’s something educationally awry that needs a systemic fix when my otherwise-smart kid can’t learn math, then I guess I have a sense of entitlement too!

  2. Elizabeth Says:

    Entitlement has become the word of the day, hasn’t it? But the moral value of an entitlement or the sense of one has entirely to do with the person using the word in a sentence, so to speak. The concept of being entitled to something is completely neutral until it is placed at the epicenter of a generation that received checkbook generousity and encouragement from parents who decided that hardship, even consequences, of most kinds was inherently bad.
    Oh, sorry, forgot to take my anti-bitter pill this morning.

  3. Jackie Says:

    This really resonated for me, because my mother was the first generation to be middle class in her family, and consequently she raised us in a more working-class mindset. We never questioned schools, we never participated in activities without being fully aware of what they cost (which kept us out of many), and I don’t remember ever feeling like my parents would want to sit and down and discuss my dreams, accomplishments, etc. I also never felt a sense of ambition from them, for me– they wanted me to go to college, but never once do I remember a discussion of the differences in quality between colleges– this despite me being in gifted classes, being precocious, getting excellent test scores up through high school, etc.
    Also, it makes me really feel conflicted about what I want for my own children. I watch my younger stepbrother grow up with all of the typical middle-class entitlement, and he seems sheltered and spoiled to me (for other reasons, too though). He doesn’t appreciate what he has, while I never knew what I was missing.
    thanks for making me think, and de-lurk!

  4. amy Says:

    yep, we’re all about work plus entitlement here. I want this kid to expect to be treated well, to be taken seriously, to live in non-filth, to be free to walk into whatever field or business she’s interested in, to eat good food, etc. I want her pitching a fit if she’s doing the work and ain’t getting none. I want her dumping scurvy guys who even hint at pushing her around.
    I didn’t recognize the value of “spoiled” until I started living with my husband, whose family likes the “take what you’re given and like it” pov. The poor man still lives with me saying, “Whaaaaat? That’s ridiculous. Why are you letting him get away with that? Go back and tell him….” I’m sure he’s sitting through all this with pocketa-pocketa-pocketa in his head, but it makes me feel better. Occasionally he actually does go back and insist on better treatment, but my God, it takes it out of him.

  5. amy Says:

    Oh. Not that I think entitlement actually exists. But it’s an extremely useful fiction.

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