Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: Rights, privileges and other misguided parental practices

“A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower

A friend of mine confided in me about the recent turmoil that has overcome the home he shares with his wife and teenage children. Between curfews, cellphone etiquette, the car and privacy issues, the house was in upheaval.

It reminded me of the 2014 New Jersey court case where a just-turned 18-year-old Rachel Canning moved out of her parents home and then sued them. They had refused to pay her bills because she didn’t abide by their house rules. A few months later, she changed her mind and dropped the case and asked to move back home. While only the Cannings know the details of the case, it does bring to question of what parents are responsible for and what they — and their kids — consider to be privileges? And why the two have gotten so bungled?

This confusion is creating a generation of kids who have a seriously skewed view of the world and a cadre of fear-mongering parents who have no clue how to deal with them.


I believe that confident parenting has lost its foothold. I believe that many parents are conforming to the new social norms for fear of losing their kids. There are basic moral tenets (respect for self and others) and laws (underage substance use, responsible cellphone use) that we, as parents, are still accountable and responsible for upholding. Period.

As we transition adolescence in our home, I continually remind my kids four basic things:

1. We are their parents first and their friends second. Our job is to provide the love, security and support they need to become confident, responsible and sentient adults.

2. The home they live in and the things they have are not theirs — they belong to me and my husband and are offered as privileges to them for abiding by our expectations.

3. Until the time they can provide for themselves, they will be held accountable for the choices they make.

4. There is a very clear distinction between privileges and rights.

Rights vs. Privileges

Whereas a right is something that can be done by anyone because all people possess it, a privilege is something that can only be done with permission — and can be taken away. So, violation of a household’s Internet contract or driving contract can result in those privileges being revoked.

Elisabeth Wilkins says in her article Rights vs. Privileges: What Do Our Kids Deserve from Us?” that kids seem to have grown more entitled in their thinking. The basics are not enough — they need it all and they need it now. Whether the confusion arises from friends or the parents themselves, the distinction between “needs” and “wants” has become murky.

Here is what parents really need to give their kids:

▪ Food, love and shelter. We are responsible for the basics, like healthy food and shelter, clothes to wear, education, and above all love and affection.

▪ Guidance. Trying to be a good teacher and guide for our children is another important part of being a parent. Talking about choices and letting our kids face natural consequences are important.

▪ A parent, not a friend. Setting limits on our kids’ behavior is a responsibility every parent has. We say no and set limits because we love our children. We’re not our kids’ friends, we’re their parents — and in the end, that’s what they most want us to be.

▪ Good memories. It is important that kids be able to look back and remember some good times they had growing up. We are responsible to provide our kids with some space to dream, have fun, and enjoy each other. Otherwise, what’s life all about?

▪ Reality. They don’t NEED extras. Kids don’t “need” Xbox games, the latest smart phone, or brand name clothes. And if they do get these things, they must be regarded as a treat. Even sending a child to college is something we want to do and should be seen as a privilege, rather than a right.

Responsible vs. Entitled Parenting

Psychologist Marsha Sauls, in her article “Practice What You Preach — Raising Responsible versus Entitled Children,” says being responsible and being entitled are two abilities that are particularly difficult to teach with words.

A child learns to be responsible or entitled according to what he or she is rewarded for. To teach responsibility, reward for accomplished behavior. To teach entitlement, reward for something other than accomplished behavior.

An entitled person is one who believes they have a right to ask for or get something. The important part of this definition is the word “right.” What is missing here is that the concept that the “right” is earned.

How do parents create entitled children who possess the idea that the world revolves around them? Training a child to be entitled is very easy. 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.

Some parents use their children to display their own “success” by giving their children privileges earlier than their age warrants. As more privileges are given, the child becomes more entitled. Divorce also begets entitlement, as warring parents assuage their guilt and vie for their child’s love with material goods.

The result of rewarding children for existing creates a child who has no concept of having to earn or do something to get or maintain a reward.

An entitled child believes:

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

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

▪ I can and should be angry when I’m requested to do something to earn what I believe is owed to me.

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

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.

How do parents create responsible children who learn that their behavior determines their life and that continuous responsible behavior brings positive rewards and freedom? These parents believe their children do not have to be happy all of the time. They allow natural consequences to occur as the result of a child being irresponsible. They provide rewards only after repeated consistent behavior rather than after one good deed.

A responsible child:

▪ Understands that they don’t automatically get things just because they exist.

▪ Respects and appreciates others’ efforts because they have a personal understanding of what it means to earn something.

▪ Develops a personal sense of power and self-esteem because they know that their control of their own behavior will and can determine what they get in life.

Digital Citizenship

Access to the Internet is a fundamental right for adults. Most of us would be hopelessly lost in our businesses or professions without it. But is access to the Internet a right for kids? Is their ownership of a smart phone a right or privilege? And what about the information on that phone? Who does it belong to — the kid, or the parent who is paying the bill?

Psychologist Amy Williams offers an interesting take in her article “Smartphones for Teens: A Right or a Privilege?” She recognizes that our children — referred to as digital natives — have been raised in a world where connected devices are ubiquitous. In fact, 75% of all American children 8 and over have access to “smart” mobile device or computer in their home. To them, the digital world is at least as important as the real world.

So as parents, should we deny them access to these devices, knowing that doing so cuts them off from important social interactions? This is certainly what teens may argue: they have a right to own a smart phone, just like all their friends. Yet we know that navigating that digital world exposes them to some very serious issues. Kids infamously send and receive chats and snap photos of each other — but sometimes lack the maturity to make sound judgment calls in doing these simple actions. This underdeveloped sense of impropriety can land teens and tweens in major trouble.

In short, giving your child a smart phone is a privilege as is the way it is utilized and the information that is transmitted. Kids must earn the right to use it free of adult supervision.

Entitlement and Real World Implications

When kids have a false sense of entitlement, they don’t see the world in real terms. When things have been handed to them their whole lives, they may not grasp the idea that they should work hard to achieve their goals. Their view of the world is, “If I want it, someone will give it to me.” Unfortunately, as we all know, that’s just not the way the world functions.

We all learn from our experiences. If your child is not learning what you want him or her to learn, change what they experience.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.