The Cornucopia Kid: How Do You Motivate The Kid Who Has Everything?

Recently I started working with a 15-year-old boy who was
underachieving at school so badly that he was expelled from
his private school. Then he started at another private
school—and his lack of motivation there put him on track
for a second expulsion.
What was the problem? At 15, the teenager exhibited the
classic symptoms of a “cornucopia kid”—someone whose
parents have provided him everything, throughout his life.
The boy’s father loves his son, and wants him to have it
better than he did. So the boy, my patient, has never had to
work. For anything. He’s never had the chance to develop
any personal responsibility.
So how do you parent the kid who has everything? Let’s
start with these three tips:

Expose your child to natural consequences. One primary
schooler I know recently left an iPad on an airplane. The
kid was brokenhearted, and the mother wanted to replace the
device. Of course she did—she’s a mom, she doesn’t
want her child to feel pain. But this was a teaching moment.
I suggested the mother provide her daughter with the
opportunity to work toward a replacement. Cleaning out the
garage is a task that generates $10 an hour, say. Other
chores have similar compensation. And in the meantime the
child should experience the loss of the device—which
should lead the child to be more careful next time.

Allow the child the opportunity to struggle. Successful
adults require resilience to, say, bear the criticism
required to create a really top-drawer presentation.
Developing that resilience begins in childhood. Don’t be
afraid to allow your child to fail at things. Working at a
sport is an excellent way to develop this sort of thick
skin. So is taking up some sort of new skill, like the
guitar. A caveat there, though: I’d encourage the parent
to require the child to make a six-month commitment to
lessons before the child is allowed to quit.

Teach money management. I’m a huge believer in
allowance. Say the child is 12 years old. He or she gets $10
a week to buy a donut and a hot cocoa at lunchtime. And if
he runs out mid-week, the parent shouldn’t replenish the
funds. Allowance teaches restraint and discipline, and, more
importantly, the value of a dollar. It’s also the
beginning of a conversation about life’s cruel reality:
The child lives in a nice house, and has nice things,
because at least one parent has worked hard enough to have
been rewarded with a well-paying job. If the child wants to
live well as an adult, he or she also needs to work hard.

Cornucopia kids tend to exhibit one of two attitudes. One,
the children tend not to believe in themselves. They mistake
their parents’ indulgences for signs that they’re not
capable of working for things themselves.

The second common attitude exhibited by these kids is a sense of
exceptionality. “I’m really special,” the child thinks. “Therefore, I don’t have to work hard.”

My 15-year-old client has a lot of work ahead of him before
he develops the resilience and responsibility required to be
successful in life. I’ve suggested all sorts of motivating
tactics for his parents. For example, he’s not allowed any
screen-time unless he’s performed at least 30 minutes of
homework a night. His overall grade-point average has
improved. He’s no longer failing any classes. Will he
succeed in life? It’s too soon to tell, but one thing is
certain when it comes to cornucopia kids: It’s better to
start teaching responsibility early.

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