An Ode to Entitlement

Last Monday was “Bat Day” at my daughter’s school. She had been talking about seeing these bats for days so after school I was expecting her to bound over like she usually does, talking one hundred miles a minutes about bats. What I got instead was a subdued child, chewing on her bottom lip.

“Not the bottom lip!” I thought. My girl has been chewing on her bottom lip since she was about six months old. She does it when her lips are dry—and when she’s upset about something.

“What’s up?” I asked.

She shook her head without saying a word. But something was clearly off. She was moody and petulant in the car, picking silly fights with her little brother and behaving unreasonably. It got so bad I had to pull over.

“What is going on with you?” I demanded again.

This time she burst into tears. The story came out in heartbreaking sobs. Two kindergarten classes had consolidated to look at the bats together. Mina’s little friend had gotten up to hang her jacket. Mina got up to do the same. The teacher from the other kindergarten class had yelled at Mina: “Sit down! You don’t get to get up!” Mina had sat back down, scared.

“Well was she far away so she had to yell for you to hear?” I inquired.

“She was right in front of my face, mama.”

“Were you doing something that you were not supposed to be doing?”

“No, I was hot and I wanted to hang up my jacket.”

“I’m sorry you had your feelings hurt, sweetie.”

“I felt scared mommy. When she yelled at me, I got scared!”

I gave a her a hug and a kiss and that was the end of it for me.

Before you judge, let me explain myself here: I come from a LOUD family. If you are a Star Trek fan and have ever seen an episode involving Klingons talking, then you’ve pretty much seen a casual conversation between my family members. We all sound mad all the time—even when we’re not. That’s just us.

And let me give you a little more context: I remember getting slapped by a school administrator in maybe second or third grade. Not a little tap. A hard slap that left a mark on my face for a good couple of hours. I think my crime was giving a hug of support to a first grader who had gotten in trouble somehow. He looked so little and scared. I felt bad. My sympathy earned me one heck of a slap.

So with all this in mind, you will perhaps understand that the idea of a teacher yelling at my five year old didn’t exactly faze me. I thought the insult would pass. My daughter thought otherwise. She brought it up the next day. And the day after that.

On the third day, she said: “Mommy I want to explain something to you. I don’t think you understand that my teacher had told us that we don’t ever need to ask permission to get up to hang our jackets. That we can do it anytime we choose without asking.”

“Was your teacher there when you were yelled at?”

“Yes, she was sitting right there.”

“Did she say anything?”

“No.”

This was clearly going to be a problem and I was out of my depth. I brought it up to a few of my mommy friends.

One said: “This is a public school. If you go around looking for issues, you’re going to find them.”

Another said: “If this had happened to one of my daughters, I would not have been able to get them to go to school for a week or two.”

I got to thinking about how hard my husband and I work to draw my daughter out of her shell. She’s bright, she’s thoughtful and she’s sometimes shy. And so we encourage her to look doctors, store owners and other adults in the eye, to ask questions, to order her own meals, to pay sometimes (with our money, of course!)

My husband, who is Latino and who works in education reform, never stops talking about how the underlying sense of entitlement that white children feel about some of the most mundane things in life helps propel them in very significant ways later in life. That white kids are often encouraged to question and demand, while Hispanic and African American kids are taught the opposite.

My take-away from my husband’s quite frequent rants is that I need to raise some entitled children if I want them to succeed. No problem! I grew up in Iran. America’s baggage about color wasn’t handed to me until a little later in life. I’m loud and I’m proud, and can act entitled with the best of them!

But wasn’t I sending my child the exact opposite message here? You were yelled at unfairly. Hug, kiss and now drop it!

What about raising children who feel entitled to respect and fair treatment? Children who deserve not to feel scared because of a teacher yelling at them? Listen, I do yell at my kids (and quite often), and I can see circumstances where it would be more than warranted to yell like a banshee. But I also like to think I’m fair and appropriate—at least most of the time.

So I sat down with my daughter and I told her I could see that she was very upset. What did she think we could do to correct this situation? She wanted to write a letter to the principal. “Fine,” I said, “you dictate and I’ll write.” She expressed herself quite eloquently while I typed. She signed her name with great pride, and after we dropped off her letter on Monday, she finally seemed satisfied and resolved.

Today’s Thursday and we haven’t had a call from school yet to discuss the matter. That annoys me but I’m giving it a few more days and then going in like the crazy Klingon I was raised to be.

Here’s to raising some entitled brown and black kids. Are you in?

14 thoughts on “An Ode to Entitlement

  1. Girl, if that were one of my daughters, the school wouldn’t have been there because we would have burned it down! LOLOL! Seriously, my husband and I do believe we need to teach our children to expect respect and fair treatment. But you know your daughter and if she’s shy or sensitive, you have to take that into consideration.

    I also like the fact that you had your daughter send a letter to the school. I hope the school responds, but if they don’t then …. you know what to do.

    People will only respect us because we demand it from them.

    P.S. — My husband and I have moved Robin from a school because she didn’t get along with a teacher. My daughter is a loving little girl, so if she doesn’t like it, it’s probably because there is something off with the teacher. With a public school, it might not be an option to change schools, but all the more reason to speak up about something if it rubs you the wrong way.

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  2. First of all, I want to say that I love this blog and that I am so inspired by the intelligent and accomplished women who write it. I would tender my application for a writing spot — the only hindrance being that I don’t yet have any children. 🙂 As an attorney, would-be academic, and future cocoa mama, many of the topics I’ve read in this blog resonate sharply with me.

    This particular blog post was especially poignant. As a child in Africa, I grew up unaware of “race,” free from the burden of “double-consciousness” that Dubois so eloquently illustrates, free from the burden of the debilitating assumptions and stereotypes associated with my specific “race” and I am thankful for that experience. As a result, I didn’t feel there wasn’t anything I couldn’t accomplish, I didn’t feel my options could be limited by anyone else other than myself. Not so many years ago, when I heard Jamie Fox speak about going to Africa and being surprised/impressed to see black pilots for the first time, I was a bit taken aback; “why wouldn’t there be black pilots?” I thought. In my family, it wasn’t a question whether I would go to college, in fact, it was a given that like my parents, and all my uncles and aunts, I, also, would acquire a graduate degree. I guess you could say that I had a “sense of entitlement.”

    However, that “sense of entitlement” has been shaken by my years in the U.S. Starting with when my mother went to enroll us in school and the counselor told her we had to take ESL classes (English, albeit with a different accent, is the official language of my country). My mother, to her credit, adamantly refused, and by 10th grade, I was in English Honors/AP classes. However, there were other more subtle, and perhaps, more damaging incidents which I felt my mother was not equiped to handle. As an African woman, you are taught not to “make trouble,” to ignore negatives, sweep them on the carpet, and walk around that area, until the day you trip over it.

    Nazie, I am glad that you sat down with your daughter and let her dictate a grievance letter. That incident might have made your daughter feel powerless, victimized and unfairly singled out, but the simple act of writing the letter (whatever the outcome), will restore her self-confidence and personal power.

    Frankly, however, I am uncomfortable with the phrase “sense of entitlement.” I first read about it as a means of combating the lowered expectations of minorities (in a Zadie Smith novel “On Beauty”). To me, it raises the implication that one “automatically expects or is entitled to” something from the world. This I think might lead to laziness, and or even bitterness — our best laid plans can still fail, and not all our hard work is guaranteed to pay off. Rather, I think it is better to have a “sense of empowerment.” I want to believe, and I want my future children to believe that regardless of any negative or lowered expectations ascribed to our gender or race, I, and they, have the power to create our ideal life, to demand redress of wrongs, and to engender change.

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    1. I think that kids, as well as all marginalized peoples, should feel entitled and empowered. I think that we are all entitled to some basic rights and that we often force marginalized groups to HAVE to fight for rights they were entitled to. One should not be meant to feel “lazy” for expecting fair, reasonable entitlements.

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  3. Christine: Laughed so hard at your comment; wish you were here in town so I could call you for advice! And IYA: got goose bumps from yours. What a beautiful note! I look forward to hearing more of your insights and love the alternate phrase you coined. “Sense of empowerment” it is then!

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  4. I think it’s a very important lesson – and cultural capital – you are imparting to Mina. People who know how to interact with professionals and authority figures get better outcomes than those who do not. Professionals respect them, and those actions signal social status and let the professional know that they are dealing with someone on their same “level.” It’s kinda like some people know the rules of the game and other people don’t. The sense of entitlement/empowerment are the rules of the social status game that we need to teach our kids if we want them to be winners in the game.

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  5. I think all children are entitled to be treated with respect and dignity, so I am glad you gave her daughter back her voice by helping her address the incident in writing.

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  6. Based on subsequent comments, I feel my comment might have been misunderstood (although it seems not by Nazie or LaToya).

    Of course children and all peoples are entitled to basic human rights, which would include respect and dignity. Of course I do not believe that anyone that expects fair treatment is “lazy.”

    My point remains: I am uncomfortable with the idea of raising a child with a general belief in a “sense of entitlement” because to me that phrase is dangerously close to the language of mastery and of “dominance.” It is dangerously close to the language of “manifest destiny” and the “world belongs to me” sensibility.

    Nazie, I am curious as to how your daughter expressed herself in the letter. As a child, I did experience similiar situations and I wish I had been able to put into words the hurt and injustice I experienced. Good for you that you gave your daughter that opportunity.

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  7. I understand that the phrase “sense of entitlement” conjures up negative images of bratty, spoiled White children who act out at the drop of a dime, thinking the world should bow to and cater to their every whim and desire.

    I also understand Tanji’s point that children of color DO need to know they are entitled to fair and equal treatment. So in that sense, I agree with her.

    However, I don’t want to raise my son to be lazy and think the world, and everything in it, should be handed to him just by virtue of being alive. I want to teach him that he needs to work hard for what he gets, but also that there are some things he deserves simply because he is a human being.

    Children of color will likely encounter different treatment from authority figures, such as teachers. There is work done that suggests Black children, especially Black boys, are treated harsher, punished more frequently, etc even though they don’t misbehave anymore than their White counterparts. This is a serious problem that leads to them feeling disconnected from school, and it leads to them feeling like they shouldn’t even bother.

    As parents, we need to be aware of this and take steps to counter it even before they enter school. We have to maintain open relationships with their teachers, coaches, etc. We have to teach them how to be respectful of others but to also demand respect.

    Being involved is something I strongly encourage all parents of children of color. If we are not, our children may go through things we’re totally unaware of that can affect the educational goals we have for them down the line.

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  8. IYA:

    Here is the exact letter, with the names redacted. I had her sign her name at the end, which I think was really significant for her because she’s mentioned it a few times:

    January 25, 2010

    Dear Principal V:

    The following incident happened the week before last, during “bat day.” Apparently two classes were consolidated for the special event and there was more than one teacher present in Mina’s classroom. She has repeatedly requested that I bring the incident to your and her teacher’s attention and I had her dictate to me what she wanted said. Because she was yelled at and was scared, Mina felt unable to explain herself at the time of the incident. The following is her verbatim account.

    We would love to sit down with you to discuss this matter further and to see what we can do to avoid this type of incident in the future.

    Best, A and J

    Dear Principal V:

    This is what happened. One day at school it was bat day and I saw one of my friends get up to put their jacket away and I really wanted to put my jacket away too because I was hot. And then Mrs. R yelled at me. She was sitting right in front of me and yelled at me. She said: “You don’t get to get up.” And it made me feel like I wanted to cry. Our teacher told us before that we didn’t have to tell her when we wanted to hang up our jackets. We could just go hang up our jackets. And when Mrs. R yelled at me, it made me feel like I wanted to cry. That’s it.

    Mina

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    1. This is a great letter, Nazie. Thanks for sharing it. Your daughter is able to simply articulate the injustice of being one of two people who did the exact same action but was the only one yelled at for it. She is also able to articulate the negative effects of being unjustly yelled at, which I think is very important for Mrs. R to understand in order to evaluate and correct her actions for the future. As LaToya and Benee have noted, your involvement and the action you have taken in this matter will empower your child with invaluable social/cultural capital that will come in handy were she to encounter a similar situation in the future.

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  9. I hear what IYA is saying – I do also sometimes use “entitlement” to refer to my undergrad students who act as though they “deserve” certain things, like good grades or excuses, simply because they are middle class and white. They’ve never had to work for anything, and that sense of entitlement is where laziness comes in. So Benee you are right on – you do need to work for things, but everyone deserves basic respect, a right not to be yelled at, to be talked to in a reasonable tone. And then a right to feel empowered to know what to do when their rights have been trampled on.

    That letter is great – it’s from both you, as a parent, and her. She sees you acting on her behalf, but she’s acting as well. She’s claiming her entitlement to respect, and is empowered to go after it when it’s been disrespected. And she knows that you have her back, but you are not just doing it for her. It’s a great lesson.

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  10. This has been a great discussion about what it means to grow up “entitled.” I will admit that I’ve said to my husband, only half-jokingly, that “there’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of entitlement.” By that, I mean, quite honestly, that I want my daughter to expect that good things will come to her, to believe that she deserves opportunities, and that any privilege she experiences in her life is no less valid just because she is a black female. Some if this goes back to what LaToya was saying about cultural capital, and knowing the rules of the game. Some of it, however, is about wanting to teach her that she has an internal locus of control; that she DOES have the power to change and control her life circumstances; that things don’t just “happen” to her. It is definitely part of how I approach the world, and I want it to be part of how she approaches her world.

    Nazie, what a great letter. I can only echo all the comments; you have both empowered your daughter, and also sent a message to her educators that she is to be respected. I love it!

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  11. My rule is, “Don’t talk to me like you’re crazy, and I won’t act crazy.” Thankfully, when the kids have had issues at school, the staff was prompt in addressing said issues. It will never be perfect, because no one will care for your kids and handle them the way you will, but keeping the lines of communication open is paramount. The letters were definitely the way to go. I think it’s easy for people to forget that kids are little people with little feelings.

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