So many parents complain, especially at holiday and birthday time, how ungrateful their children are. It’s hard to put in all the time, effort, and money into our children’s upbringing and wants and desires only to have them take and take and show no appreciation. So how do we turn this around? How do we raise grateful children?
The irony is that when you expect your children to show appreciation—in other words when your button gets pushed because they don’t, and you react anywhere from subtly guilt-tripping to blowing up—they will only get defensive and you will never see it. Yet when you least expect it and never demand it, that’s when you get it.
The most important key to getting started on raising gratitude is to understand that everything you do for your children, everything you buy, every opportunity you provide is your choice. Nobody is making you buy or do anything. Not even the “everybodies” who all have just what your child is demanding.
If you don’t want your child to have what “everybody else has”, don’t get it. Be clear in yourself and confident of your values. Do not lay it on your child with, “You don’t need that. Just because your friends have it, doesn’t mean you have to.” Instead go with an empathic approach and take responsibility for yourself. “I know it’s hard to be the only one who doesn’t get to see that movie. You really want to be in the know, I get it. Deciding what is okay and what is not is my job. Bummer. You have to live with a mom who sometimes makes you mad.”
Many parents feel suckered into succumbing to their kids’ demands out of sheer frustration to stop the whining or arguing. Many feel guilty about the lack of time they are able to spend with their kids or the split time that divorce requires. Many were required to show appreciation to their needy parents and so expect the same of their own children. Whatever the reason, when children feel pressured to appreciate, they usually come up empty.
Don’t ask for it. The “After all I’ve done for you, why can’t you do one thing for me?” approach merely lays on guilt creating more resistance. Who wants to hear that? The “Do you realize how good you’ve got it” approach assumes that your children are able to compare their lives to yours or to others who have very little. First, they are not capable of that perspective when they are young, and second, why should they be asked to be grateful for the only experiences they know? It takes maturity to understand and compare one’s life to another’s.
What TO do to encourage gratitude
- Instead of acting belligerent when you do something for your child and he doesn’t respond, simply say, “Thank you, Mommy” in a light-hearted way that encourages his thank you response.
- In the same vein, when your child demands something, wait for the please or give a reminder of please so that she says please.
- Always say please and thank you to your children, spouse and others.
- As soon as your child is old enough to understand that gifts come from others who take time and thought to get them, ask your child to dictate a letter to you. “What would you like to say to grandma about the train set? Do you like playing with it? What’s your favorite part? Let’s tell her about it.”
- When your kids are old enough to write, be sure and spend time with them while they write thank you notes and help with the thinking process if needed. Make it fun so it doesn’t become a chore.
- Anytime your child does anything helpful, point it out. “I really appreciate it when you bring your plate to the sink. It helps me with my job.” “I bet your sister felt really good when you gave her a hug when she was feeling bad.” “Thank you for putting your puzzles away.”
- Let your children hear you talking about how grateful or appreciative you are toward someone else. Let them see you writing a note to someone or hear you expressing it to the person.
- At the dinner table, take turns offering something you feel grateful for and also something you wish hadn’t happened that day.
- When you find yourself frustrated by your child’s lack of appreciation, stop and ask yourself, What am I missing? What do I wish for that I am not getting? What do I want my child to give me? Is that realistic, appropriate? Am I expecting her to respond at her age the way I would at my age?
- Try to get in your child’s head and understand what he is thinking or feeling when you sense lack of caring. Disappointment or anger in the moment will trump any consideration for what another went through.
Remember that a child’s development for many years is extremely egocentric. That’s why they need parents for about eighteen years. Do not expect them to rise above a big, negative feeling to think of your feelings first.
If you remember being very appreciative when you were your child’s age, ask yourself what would have happened if you weren’t. Was your appreciation genuine or required? Some children have an easier time being ingenuine than others.
Like respect, gratitude is a feeling that cannot be taught, only experienced. You can remind your children that they might be feeling gratitude, you can show them ways to express their gratitude, but you can’t make them feel it.
When we get older, we learn how to lie a little by expressing gratitude for something we may not even like because we want someone to like us, feel acknowledged by us, or experience our gesture. But childhood is no time to start teaching that.
Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With can help you shift your perspective of your child and his behavior so that your anger can shift to compassion and understanding — frustration probably; annoyance undoubtedly, but much less anger.