Don your armor—it’s time to make your ministry a no-entitlement zone
“I want to be the star of the pageant next year.”
“I don’t feel like listening to the lesson. I’m going to do what I want.”
“I can play violent video games at church if I want to. You can’t stop me.”
“Well, I would like to give some money to the kids in Africa, but if I give them my money, then I can’t buy Disney Infinity 3.0.”
You’ve heard theories on Generation X and Millennials and Generation Z—ideas about why they tend to have certain characteristics. But chances are you’ve experienced more than theory when it comes to a different generation—one quickly being dubbed The Entitlement Generation. That would be the kids—mostly Generation Z—who operate from an ingrained self-view that they are—yes—entitled. You owe me. I deserve this. I am special.
“Entitled children, and grown-ups, always suffer from alienation, lack of trust and restless unhappiness,” says Bruce Steven Dolin, a clinical psychologist practicing in California. “They’re forever striving for the next free thing, but never feeling satisfied; it’s like expensive charity events where wealthy celebrities relish the gift bag, as if they actually need more swag. Doesn’t this suggest a poverty of spirit that’s forever hungry for more free stuff but cannot be filled because the vessel of the self is a colander as opposed to a bowl?”
Our culture has been hard at work for years developing this worldview in our children—from providing awards to every child for minimal effort to supplying them with every gadget or gizmo imaginable in a way that fixes every problem and reinforces a child’s sense that above all others, he or she is inherently special. But as “Syndrome,” the villain in Pixar’s The Incredibles movie, says, “When everyone’s special…then no one’s special.”
True—not all kids we minister to have this syndrome…but many do. You may recognize the following attitudes.
A lack of responsibility and concern is one of the most telling signs of entitlement. Why should the child take responsibility when someone else will always step in to do so?
“I want it now.”
The driving need for instant gratification—regardless of the situation—dominates kids’ world today.
“Give it to me.”
This underlines the belief that kids won’t really have to work for anything because, based on their own specialness, they’ll get it anyway.
“Nothing will happen to me.”
Because parents or other adults swoop in to fix problems or smooth over issues, natural consequences rarely happen. This results in kids believing that no matter what they do, nothing bad will really happen as a result.
If you recognize these attitudes in the kids you minister to, you’re likely dealing with some entitlement issues.
“When kids have a false sense of entitlement, they don’t see the world in real terms,” says child behaviorist and parent coach James Lehman. This distorted view of the world can cause problems all the way into adulthood.
And while you may not be able to eliminate a child’s sense of entitlement, there are specific things you can do to prevent it from taking hold in your group. Follow these do’s and don’ts with the kids in your ministry.
1. Don’t try to reason with a child who’s consumed with getting his or her way.
You’ll quickly find that there is no reasoning with the child. Take charge and, as the leader, state how things are.
2. Don’t be taken in by the child’s drama.
Entitled kids are often unhappy kids. They may resort
to tantrums or snits because those tactics work with other adults. Don’t shortchange the other kids in your group by giving undue time or attention to the child’s perceived issues.
3. Don’t engage in power struggles with the child.
You’re the adult in charge. Don’t bargain with the child or attempt to appeal to him. Doing so sends the message that you’re equals, and frankly that the child is calling the shots.
4. Don’t cave in because it’s easier.
It’s no fun to deal with a child who’s behaving poorly. But you must. Don’t give in just to maintain the peace— you’ll teach the child that her behavior was effective, and it sends a poor message to the other children.
5. Don’t make exceptions for the child.
When you break or bend rules for one child, you’re saying: “You are special, so that rule doesn’t apply to you.” This is toxic for other kids and difficult to undo once you’ve gone there.
6. Don’t reward mediocre effort.
When we celebrate kids’ lukewarm efforts, we’re teaching them that hard work doesn’t matter. Also, we diminish the efforts of kids who’ve really invested themselves. Encourage kids, but don’t lavish unwarranted praise on anyone.
1. Set limits and stick to them.
If you’ve told kids they can each have 1.75 Sugar-Encrusted Doughnut Bombs, then let them each have 1.75—and no more.
2. Teach kids they have to work to earn many things.
When you’re consistent in this, you’ll help kids understand the reality they’ll face as adults. Make them work for privileges and rewards within your group. Don’t let them do something halfway. If they get tired of washing cars for the fundraiser, don’t let them off the hook. Make them fully participate to earn group rewards.
3. Remind kids they’re not entitled to whatever they want.
One girl approached her ministry leader at a special swim outing during lunch. She held out a hand and said, “Give me your chips. I already ate mine.” This was after she’d made the rounds taking food from other kids. After one stunned second, the leader insisted the girl return the food she’d taken and told her parents upon their return. The dad shrugged and said, “She must have been hungry.” When you see a child operating from the belief that she’s entitled to have or do anything she pleases, put a stop to it in that moment and explain why.
4. Remind kids who their identity comes from.
God tells us to be humble. When we see kids acting in ways that are anything but, it’s concerning. Spend time with all your kids talking about who their identity in Jesus is and what it means to have a servant’s heart. Set aside time for discussion about real-world issues so kids can grapple with what Jesus wants from them as his followers.
5. Have high expectations of kids.
Too often, the temptation to “spoil” kids or bend rules for them stems from our personal belief that they’re not capable of handling the task or handling consequences. Don’t give in to this temptation. Kids are capable of more than we can imagine. And often they’ll learn far more from genuine failure than from adults stepping in to ensure they succeed. Expect more—and you’ll get it.
Keep Kids Riveted on Jesus
The less kids truly know about Jesus, the more likely they are to focus on their personal wants rather than what he desires. The key
is helping kids get to know Jesus as he really is. Here are three of my favorite ways to do that.
Pay Ridiculous Attention to Jesus
When you’re studying Jesus with kids, slow way down to consider what he actually said and did, who he actually said and did it to, and what his actual impact was.
Wallow In Mud Puddles
Some passages about Jesus seem hard to understand, so we jump over them like mud puddles. But these passages are the keys to understanding his heart (Matthew 15:21-28, for example).
Ask the Oprah Question
Oprah Winfrey’s favorite question is: What’s one thing you know for sure? Twist it a little, and use it all the time with kids: “What’s one thing you know for sure about Jesus, based only on this passage?”
Rick Lawrence is the longtime editor of GROUP Magazine and the author of many books, including The Jesus-Centered Life.
Into the Bible
Soaking kids in God’s Word is vital to helping them go against the flow in an entitled culture.
Choose Bibles wisely.
As you consider Bible translations for your ministry, look for one kids can read and understand today so they can start processing God’s Word and allowing it to mold their lives in a practical way. A great choice is the International Children’s Bible (Tommy Nelson), a third-grade reading level translation. It’s easy to read and understand with short sentences, large font, and highlights of more than 300 key Bible verses in the text.
Show kids God has high expectations.
Focus on Bible passages about people such as Joseph, Noah, Moses, and especially Jesus and his disciples. God’s people had to work—and he honored their faithfulness and devotion. Joseph was thrown into slavery and jail, but he worked hard and God honored his true faithfulness.
Build an appreciation for relationships, not things.
The Bible has so many examples of profound relationships—the most important being our relationship with Jesus. Help kids see that it’s relationships—not things—that matter.
AnnJanette Toth serves on the worship team and in children’s ministry at her church in Nashville, Tennessee. She’s also the senior director of marketing for children’s books for Thomas Nelson.
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