Words Do Matter: ‘Entitlement’

An attitude of entitlement pervades our culture today.  Where did it originate?  From today’s emphasis on immediate gratification?  Expanding social programs?  Human envy?  All likely suspects.  But what about the role played by today’s family environment?

While recently visiting a friend, her TV-watching twelve-year-old cried out, “Mommy, I’m thirsty!” Laura,  a busy professional, jumped up and brought her daughter a glass of water.  Almost simultaneously, her son yelled from his room, “Mom, I have no clean socks!” And what do you know? My friend apologised to him for not having done the wash!

Today, many mothers allow themselves to become the family servant, an unfortunate situation that has resulted in only the rare family requiring their children to have chores.  Not having chores precludes children from understanding and appreciating the time and effort parents expend in order to maintain a smoothly running household.  Besides not having chores, many children do not receive an allowance and depend on parental largesse in order to obtain things they desire.  Indeed, today’s middle class children live in an artificial world that has few limits and demands almost no responsibilities.  The result?  Children do not feel that they have something to contribute, or need to contribute, to their family.  Privileges no longer need to be earned and children feel they are entitled to them!  As our children mature and demand more freedom and privileges, the price should be increased responsibility; that is, if our goal is to have them become responsible and contributing citizens.

Those who become citizens of the United States are granted rights, but they are also expected to fulfil a number of responsibilities.  Indeed, the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) distributes to our very newest citizens an information sheet that lists both their rights and their responsibilities as American citizens.  Interestingly, the list contains more responsibilities than rights:

Rights: (1) Freedom to express yourself; (2) Freedom to worship as you wish:           (3) Right to a prompt, fair trial by jury; (4) Right to vote in elections for public officials; (5) Right to apply for federal employment requiring U.S. citizenship;         (6) Right to run for elected office; and (7) Freedom to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness.” Responsibilities:  (1) Support and defend the Constitution; (2) Stay informed of the issues affecting your community; (3) Participate in the democratic process; (4) Respect and obey federal state, and local laws; (5) Respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others; (6) Participate in your local community; (7) Pay income and other taxes honestly, and on time, to federal, state, and local authorities; (8) Serve on a jury when called upon and (9) Defend the country if the need should arise.

Only a few decades ago, American society rallied to President Kennedy’s challenge, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country!”  Today, sneers might well meet such a call to serve.  Many among our youth today are more concerned about what they deserve — i.e., are entitled to — than what they can contribute to their family and to their country.

Merriam-Webster defines entitlement as: “the condition of having a right to have, do or get something; the feeling or belief that you deserve to be given something (such as special privileges)…”  Note the absence of any accompanying responsibilities (i.e., entitlement refers only to what one deserves).

George Orwell, who said “…if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” (Politics and the English Language 1946), would contend that the widespread use of the word “entitlement” not only reflects a social reality, but also promotes selfishness and lack of responsibility.

So what might we do with the word “entitlement,” besides retire it?  Well, why not replace it with “privilege,” a word that implies having worked to receive something?  Privilege also implies an attitude of gratefulness.  I think George Orwell would be pleased!  He might even predict that replacing the word “entitlement” with “privilege” would contribute to awakening the younger generation to the value of hard work and to the many spiritual benefits of gratefulness.

About the Author
SINCE MAKING ALIYAH IN 1983 AND REMARRYING AN ISRAELI IN ISRAEL IN 1985, I HAVE BEEN SPLITTING MY TIME BETWEEN THE US AND ISRAEL. I WAS BORN IN NEW YORK CITY IN 1942, GRADUATED FROM BARNARD COLLEGE IN 1963, MARRIED AND HAD TWO DAUGHTERS, WHO HAVE GIVEN ME FOUR GRANDCHILDREN, WHO RESIDE IN THE US. MY SECOND HUSBAND'S CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN LIVE IN ISRAEL, HENCE THE "BACK AND FORTH." I COMPLETED MY PHD AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA-CHAPEL HILL IN 1981 AND SUBSEQUENTLY COMPLETED A TWO-YEAR POSTDOCTORAL FELLOWSHIP IN PEDIATRIC PSYCHOLOGY THERE IN 1989. AFTER MAKING ALIYAH IN 1983, I BECAME THE FIRST EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF OSCAR VAN LEER'S SPECIAL PROJECT, THE JERUSALEM CHILDREN'S COUNCIL, THE PRECURSOR TO THE CURRENT NATIONAL ORGANIZATION. PRIOR TO MAKING ALIYAH I WAS A CONGRESSIONAL FELLOW OF THE SOCIETY FOR RESEARCH IN CHILD DEVELOPMENT (SRCD) AND FOUNDED THE SELECT COMMITTEE FOR CHILDREN AND FAMILIES IN THE US CONGRESS.
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