The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


November 22, 2023

The Child Without Thanksgiving

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On Saturday night, June 15, 2013, 16-year-old Ethan Couch driving drunk slammed his truck into a parked car, killing four people. He eventually pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication assault but his defense lawyers presented a surprising argument during the sentencing hearing.

D Magazine reported: “Describing how the boy had been a victim of his own family’s wealth and how he had grown up without repercussions for bad behavior, a psychologist used the word ‘affluenza.’ After three days of testimony, Judge Jean Boyd sentenced Ethan, the spoiled kid who had wrought such pain and destruction, not to prison, but to time in a cushy California rehab and 10 years of probation…This was the son of a well-off family escaping consequences by saying he’d always avoided consequences. It was proof of separate justice systems in this country, one for the rich and another for the poor, and Ethan became the face of wealth and privilege.”

Ethan testified that he did drugs; he thought his mother knew he drank alcohol as she warned him not to drink and drive the night of the accident; his parents allowed him to start driving by himself at age 13; and he often stayed alone in the family’s second home in Burleson, Texas.

When asked if she had ever disciplined Ethan for anything, Tonya Couch testified in the deposition that she would “sometimes … take little things away from him or we would just discuss the problems.” When asked if she could recall the last time she disciplined her son, Tonya replied, “I don’t remember.”

Today is Thanksgiving and yet I have been thinking about young people brought up to believe not only are they above the rules but are the innocent victims of being coddled by their parents. In their eyes, through no fault of their own, they have been ruined not by their own choices but by being protected from the consequences of their irresponsible behavior. Moreover, instead of accepting their personal responsibility and choosing what Dr. John Townsend calls “The Hard Way” in his  book, “The Entitlement Cure,” they find it easier to continue blaming others.

In “The Coddling of the American Mind” Dr. Jonathan Haidt describes the disastrous effect of creating a sense of entitlement in a child:

A carton of eggs is fragile, if you bang it around it breaks. But bone is anti-fragile. If you bang it around it gets stronger, and if you don’t bang it around it gets weaker. Children are anti-fragile. They have to have many, many experiences of failure, fear, and being challenged. Then they have to figure out ways to get themselves through it. If you deprive children of those experiences for eighteen years and then send them to college, they cannot cope. They don’t know what to do. The first time a romantic relationship fails or they get a low grade, they are not prepared because they have been rendered fragile by their childhoods.

How can we ever hope such a child will experience Thanksgiving? For what are they grateful? It turns out they are not, sadly, and unless they are allowed or forced to experience reality they will turn into adults who are handicapped for relationships and life. People allowed to believe they deserve protection from consequences are far more damaged than merely spoiled. They are destined for a life of dependence on others to rescue them and, ultimately, despair. Dr. Townsend says, rightly, that gratitude and entitlement cannot coexist in the same brain. The entitled child is the child without Thanksgiving.

To be clear, these are not children who grew up without praise. To the contrary, Dr. Townsend points out, they likely grew up with too much praise for the wrong things, such as being praised for what takes no effort. Townsend writes, “Most of the time, when praise is at its most effective, that achievement would involve a person’s character or internal makeup. To repeatedly praise a little girl for being pretty puts her in a bind. What she hears is, ‘What gets me loved is something I can’t do much about.’ Another is praise for what is not based on reality by encouraging a child to believe they can do anything they strongly desire. Finally, there is excessive praise that is not attached to anything specific. To simply say, ‘You are amazing’ is likely to do more long term harm than good. Praise should not be a shortcut that takes little effort and is empty of real meaning. After years of misguided praise a child is headed down the dark path of entitlement.”

But there is another and more hopeful story. I read the account of two Harvard alumni, Sam Greenberg and Sarah Rosenkrantz, who work full time as co-directors of the Y2Y homeless shelter - a safe place for those between the ages of 18 and 24 - run by Harvard students. As well, it is the nation’s first student-run overnight shelter for young people. What caught my attention was what they said at their original announcement: “Thank you for making us the people we wanted to be.”

That is the cure for entitlement, isn’t it? Not only gratitude for what we have but thankfulness for the work of others in our lives to help make us the people we want to be.

Art by Wang Tzu-Ting

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