Gratitude comes easier to some of us because of life lessons and experiences. It is a virtue that is cultivated over time, over a life span. However, many children haven’t had the healthy life lessons or a loving caregiver to help them develop a grateful heart. In a world where the cultural norm is to be self-absorbed, it’s our charge as parents to teach our children the virtue of gratitude.
WHY CHILDREN HAVE INGRATITUDE: Let’s explore why children who have been wounded sometimes display ingratitude. The explanations are vast, but below are a few:
– Never taught gratitude: Our children do not come with a natural tendency for thankfulness and gratitude. When they come from hard places, it’s likely no one has taken the time to explain or teach them the concept of thankfulness.
– Past experiences: We have to recognize these children who have walked through tremendous loss, trauma, and neglect may have difficulty being thankful for their past experiences. Furthermore, they may find it hard to be grateful even if their current situation is better, because they see through the lens of trauma.
– Self-absorption: It’s developmentally appropriate for children to believe the world revolves around them. Ingratitude is a natural life stage that all children go through. It’s important, as parents not to overact to something that may be developmentally appropriate.
– Grieving: All children who have come from a hard place have experienced some type of loss or trauma. Imagine your greatest loss; was it easy or difficult to be grateful during that time of grief? Many of our children are grieving their losses. We can’t expect them to be grateful in the midst of their grief, or if they are emotionally healing from the trauma of neglect or abuse.
– Not feeling safe: Some children come from situations where safety is not guaranteed on a daily basis. For these children, the priority of each day is merely survival. Gratitude and thankfulness are not even on their radar. Until the child has an established sense of felt safety (which may take a very long time) we cannot expect him or her to be grateful.
– Overcompensation: Some people have a tendency to give abundantly to children who have experienced difficult things, so they go out of their way to give them whatever they may want. Over time this could have long-term effects and the children learn that they do not have to do anything, they simply “deserve” to be given whatever they want. So, our good intentions might do some harm. Yet, I am NOT saying that people shouldn’t give nice things to children! It should simply be balanced with some responsibility and opportunities to earn nice things as the child gets older. When a child is constantly given everything and anything they ever want without a balance of healthy age-appropriate responsibility, we should expect a sense of entitlement to grow.
HOW TO RESPOND TO INGRATITUDE: It takes time and consistent responses to create felt safety, which is a building block for thankfulness and gratitude. Also, a child exhibiting entitlement and ingratitude are tough issues because these feelings did not develop overnight. Parents must recognize that it will likely not be changed overnight either. So, don’t give up and try to incorporate some of the following tools into your daily lives.
Practical suggestions for responding to Ingratitude:
– Model gratitude: As parents you must model gratitude in your speech and conversations with your children. Throughout each day, let your children see you living in a perpetual state of thankfulness unto the Lord; reflecting on the goodness of the Lord helps you stay in a state of gratitude.
– Pray: Pray aloud and let your children hear your thanksgiving to the Lord.
– Be the example: Use and teach your children to use phrases such as “please” and “thank you”.
– Be positive and intentional: Purposefully point out the positives. This can be done around the dinner table by asking each family member about their favorite part of the day as well as their least favorite. This creates opportunity to discuss what we can be thankful for and what we can be prayerful about.
– Teach servanthood: Allow your children opportunities to serve others and help those in need; or maybe “help” with a special project at home. When given opportunities to serve others in need outside or within your own home, natural gratitude will begin to form. With gratitude comes fewer feelings of entitlement. After completion, be sure to express your gratitude to them for their help.
– Maintain Godly perspective: Continue to acknowledge, understand and empathize with your child’s problems at hand or of his past while also teaching him to focus on the promises of God.
– Provide opportunities to earn: When they are given everything without having any responsibility, it naturally develops entitlement. Give children the opportunity to earn things. This helps them appreciate what they have, and builds a sense of self accomplishment.
CONCLUSION: You must remember, it would be unfair for you to automatically expect these children to feel gratitude when they have experienced so much loss. As we recommend children being required to serve others and earn things, we want to reiterate again, that it also must be balanced with the fact that they are going to be well provided for and do not need to feel as if they have to earn the right to live where they live or receive the care they deserve. Trying to maintain this balance is what makes this particular undesirable attitude particularly difficult. Yet, a healthy balance of these suggestions will be helpful overtime. In a world where ingratitude infiltrates our culture, raising a child to recognize blessings, favors or gifts and respond with a “Thank you” will serve them well as adults. It is in thanksgiving that we are forced to get outside of ourselves and pay respect and appreciation to others and God.
Developed by: Kimberley Evans, LGSW,
References: Orlans, M. & Levy, T. (2006), Healing Parents: Helping Wounded Children Learn to Trust & Love. Washington DC: Child Welfare League of America, Inc.