By Dr. Ramani Durvasula
The father who insists his son start and play in every game.
The mother who demands that a school procedure related to college applications be revised for her child.
The parent who calls the college admission’s officer or their child’s teacher and berates them for not admitting them or giving them a poor grade.
The mother who is a “room mother” who insists that her rigid rules be followed vis-à-vis cupcakes, library volunteering, and Halloween parades and shames those who do not adhere to her rules and edicts.
The parent who attempts to bribe a coach, teacher, school administrator or other official to ensure smoother passage for his child.
Parental entitlement appears to be the new world order. Parents who believe their children are entitled to special treatment, even if that results in other children receiving a lesser opportunity. It’s a bit of a blind spot, as the entitled parents are not typically cruel, they are not intentionally depriving another child, but they are generally unempathic, mindless and clueless. They don’t really care that another child would need to be deprived for their child to get his way.
There is a Darwinian vibration in the air of late, hypercompetitive parenting is becoming increasingly common, complemented by trends such as helicopter parenting and a competitive college admissions environment. Parents are buying into the “survival of the fittest” as a guide to parenting. Parents feel judged by outcomes rather than remaining focused on process. A parent may believe that only by getting Junior to the top spot in ballet troupe, the basketball team, the debate team, the elite university, or the beauty pageant are they being a “good” parent. In this way, it doesn’t matter HOW they got there, as long as they get there.
Parental entitlement can also be a gateway to parental bullying, and its close cousin – parental shaming. Parents who bully may attempt to bully teachers, school administrators, coaches, university administrators, and even other parents. It’s a safe bet that a parental bully is a bully in other arenas, as bullying is a pattern that tends to generalize across all relationships. A child just becomes an extension of the parent, and a place to exercise their entitlement. Queen bees and alpha moms and dads often buzz around with the entitled indifference they have had their entire lives, and now instead of bullying for themselves, they bully on behalf of their children.
Entitled parents tend to behave in accordance with their own pre-existing patterns of entitlement, narcissism, psychopathy, or just being a high-conflict kind of person. They tend to wear blinders to the needs or feelings of other people, in what they believe, is a well-motivated drive to “advocate” for their child. And there’s the rub – there is a difference between advocacy and entitlement. An advocate appropriately interacts with an institution or individual, communicates about a child’s needs, attempts to craft a collaborative plan, but is not blind to the needs of other children or parents.
Incivility appears to be the new black and combativeness is sadly often rewarded. Risk averse school districts, and battle-weary educators often relent to the squawks of high demand parental bullies. This serves solely to reward the bullying parents to keep steamrolling their child through the system. What starts with hustling to get a child into an “elite preschool” at any cost, can culminate in being a bully with college counselors to ensure their child gets into his top choice university.
But there is a darker issue afoot. What does this teach the children? At the simplest level it teaches them that there are two sets of rules: one for them, and one for the other children. It may result in kids who go on to become bullies themselves. It may result in kids who are ashamed and embarrassed at their parents’ conduct, and who may actually face the antipathy of their teachers. No matter what the results of parental bullying is not good for the children. It robs a child of a sense of agency, leaving them questioning whether their achievement was actually their own, or a by-product of parental scheming, it can generate a sense of discomfort or insecurity, and it sets an uncomfortable developmental precedent.
The other dark side, is parents bullying other parents. The idea that it “takes a village” has been supplanted by “police state parenting” – parents shaming other parents. Mothers who stay at home, bullying mothers who work. Mothers who work, bullying mothers who stay at home. PTA mothers turning the PTA into their bully pulpit. Parents standing in corners, talking in hushed tones and shaming parents who actually let their child take a city bus or let themselves into an empty home at the end of the day. Instead of offering empathy and support, there is a tendency for more than a few parents to issue shame and criticism. The culture of parental bullying can turn parenting into a competitive blood sport rather than a collaborative endeavor. Our children do as we do. It’s that simple.
What can we do? It is too easy to say that “life is high school” and bullying needs to be part of the parenting journey. There are steps we can take to survive the treacherous waters of parental bullying.
1. Find a tribe of parental advocates. Find your allies. Whether that means sharing rides, dinners, keeping an eye out for each other, sharing information – find that tribe, and create your villages. Parents need support. Draw close to the parents who can provide this type of support, and set boundaries with those who cannot. Make your own villages.
2. Stop falling for prevailing rhetoric and battle-lines. If you are a parent, you understand other parents. It doesn’t matter if they work outside the home, run a business from their home, or are not currently employed outside the home. These artificial distinctions are a way for society to divide women. Mothers love their kids – that’s all the commonality you need. Don’t fall for these artificial battle lines. Connect through empathy.
3. Walk away from parental bullies. Just like a playground fight has no winners, that rule applies for parents too. Entitled, combative and toxic parents are pathologically insecure and that means they are not good for you. Set boundaries and keep your distance. This can be complicated if your child befriends a bully’s children, do not make your battle your child’s problem. Find a way to set healthy boundaries, and do not engage.
4. Don’t get in the mud. Don’t become part of the parental gossip machine. It’s easy to fall back into that need to “belong” and get caught in the titter of parental gossip, just don’t! Gossip is a gateway to more bullying. Do not get drawn into social media prattle about other parents. Keep it clean, the last thing you want to model for your child is this kind of toxic behavior.
5. Advocate for your child in a healthy manner. It is normal to want to do right by your child, communicate with their teachers, stay abreast of school information, and be an informed parent. That does not mean asking for special dispensation for your child. You are doing your child no favors by doing that, and it undermines the ability of teachers, administrators, and coaches to optimally work with your child. If you are having difficulties with an adult who is working with your child, approach these challenges through appropriate channels. All children are special, do not give them the message that they are more special than others, and teach them the grotesque lesson of entitlement.
Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice and Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. Dr. Ramani speaks on a wide variety of topics that help people reach their full potential in their relationships, jobs, and family, but most of all - for themselves. Dr. Ramani works with TONE Networks, an online resource and community for women who want to grow personally and professionally. She is the “Relationship Expert” at TONE providing concise “How To” expertise on all types of relationship issues. She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist. As an expert on narcissism, she recognizes that it has changed the American landscape – particularly our health, workplaces and relationships, and that authenticity may be the only "narcissism antidote” we have.
In her book You Are WHY You Eat, Dr. Ramani teaches us to unearth our inner voice, and let it be heard, to trust ourselves and act from the gut, while making that gut smaller at the same time. She shows us that understanding WHY we eat can lead to real and lasting change--both in weight loss and all other areas of life.
She is currently at work on a new book about staying sane in our era of narcissism and entitlement.
Dr. Ramani has contributed to The New York Times, Health Magazine, Bustle, The Megyn Kelly Today Show, ABC, NBC, The Wall Street Journal, Pop Sugar, and more.
Learn more about Dr. Ramani here.