A child throws a plate of spaghetti to the floor, shouting, “I don’t want it!” and we think of how we would have absolutely loved to have than when we were kids.
Or a child breaks a toy within minutes of getting it, and we wonder whether they’re being ungrateful or whether they’re taking things for granted.’
In this blog post and episode of the Discerning Parenting podcast, we talk about what we can do when kids seem ungrateful. We’ll see why, often, things aren’t quite what they seem.
This topic is close to my heart not just as a parent coach and developmental pediatrician, but it’s personal for me as well. When I had tantrums or misbehaved as a child, I was told, “Your parents work so hard to give you a happy life and this is how you repay them! You’re so ungrateful!”
But is that really so? Are kids really being “ungrateful” when they’re not acting in a way that adults around them expect?
At some point, we may all have worried about whether we’re teaching our kids enough about gratitude. Here are 5 ideas I’d like to share that will help us better understand this, and what we can do to help our kids learn the value of gratitude.
#1 – Tantrums or “bad behavior” do NOT mean that a child is “ungrateful”.
There are many possible reasons why young kids have tantrums – and they have nothing to do with being “ungrateful”. Get our FREE parenting toolkit that includes a quick PDF guide to help decode why kids have tantrums.
The child who throws spaghetti to the floor may be communicating frustration (which often has nothing to do with the spaghetti). So instead of labeling the child as ungrateful, we may instead help them (gradually) express their frustration in more productive ways.
If a child breaks a toy, it often doesn’t mean that they “don’t know how to appreciate what they have” – but they may simply have not learned how to play with it appropriately. Or they may have sensory processing issues that make them use too much force in handling things.
Maybe you’ve experienced kids misbehaving during what should be happy occasions – like a fun vacation that we worked so hard for. This leaves you wondering whether they’re being ungrateful and they just don’t appreciate all that you’re doing for them.
If so, be sure to check out also our previous episode on Holidays with Kids: 5 Tips to Go from Behavior Challenges to Happy Celebrations – and you’ll walk away with a better understanding of why this happens and what we can do about it.
#2 – Not everyone expresses gratitude in the same way.
A child who looks away and mumbles something unintelligible is NOT necessarily any less grateful than another child who does a happy dance and shouts a loud “thank you” on receiving a gift.
That said, even if different kids express gratitude in different ways, if a child has difficulty expressing gratitude, we can help them learn to communicate this (in the same way that we help them learn to communicate other feelings or ideas).
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Which brings me to…
#3 – Gratitude is taught.
We often assume that kids should know things like when they should say thank you, and if they don’t do it, then it means they’re either rude or ungrateful. Some kids may be able to pick this up on their own by watching people around them. But for many kids, this may need to be taught explicitly.
Teaching gratitude doesn’t mean forcing a child by saying things like, “You can’t have any of this yummy dessert until you say thank you!”
There are many ways to help our kids learn gratitude, depending on their age and where they are in their development.
For young kids, stories, visuals, and even roleplay can help. A very simple story like this can be a fun way to teach young kids about communicating gratitude:
Click here to get our FREE parenting toolkit that includes the simple story above that you can use to help young kids communicate gratitude. This will also be a fun activity for you and your child!
When our kids do express gratitude, appreciate it too! (“I saw how you thanked the waiter for bringing your meal. He’s been working hard, and I bet you made his day brighter.”)
#4 – Gratitude is modeled.
It’s not enough to just learn about it, but kids also need to see gratitude being modeled by people around them. Kids learn best by imitating what they see around them.
If our kids listen to us – for example, if they go wash their hands and brush their teeth when it’s time to do so – we can say, “Thank you for washing your hands” or “Thank you for brushing your teeth.”
I’ve heard people object to this, saying, “Why do we need to thank them when they do something that they’re supposed to do anyway?!” But we can and should still be thankful even when they’re doing “what’s expected”! Not only does this acknowledge and reinforce the behavior, but it also models gratitude.
Also, it will be tough to teach our kids gratitude if they mostly see people who rant and complain (whether in person or on social media).
Or if they’re glued to Youtube, with the algorithm feeding them video after video of other kids playing with toys that seem so much cooler than the ones they have.
Of course, as adults, we know that these toys are not necessarily cooler. It’s just how the videos are made, plus the fact that your kid doesn’t have these toys yet – that makes them seem cooler. It’s no surprise then, that after getting that very toy advertised in the video, your little one may act “ungrateful” when it doesn’t live up to the promise and loses its appeal after a day or so!
#5 – It’s all about the relationship we build with our kids today.
We need to teach them, by our own words and actions, that it’s our relationship, our connection, that matters most.
We show them that holiday celebrations are about being with each other, and not about getting the perfect decorations or preparing the best gifts or loot bags. And in doing this, we’re also easing the pressure on ourselves as parents to “get everything right.”
If you have a favorite tip from the ones above, or have your own to share, I’d love to know! Leave a comment below!
These are the kinds of things we talk about in the Discerning Parent’s Club (such as building relationships, helping them handle frustration, or communicating their feelings more effectively), so if this was helpful to you, check out the club as well.
If you have an older child, I have a journal specially designed to help kids reflect on values such as gratitude, look beyond themselves, and appreciate their role and purpose in the world. Check out the I Am a Hero journal on Amazon.