Updated: May 6, 2021
"I wish my kids would appreciate what they have". This is a comment that I hear a lot. Parents are constantly taking their children to activities, busy juggling life in general and then when they hear "why can't I have ........., other kids are allowed" or "I want....." we instantly feel like the flick has been switched and our kids just don't appreciate everything that they have. It can be so infuriating to hear our kids be so ungrateful. But gratitude is not something that comes naturally, it has to be taught and practiced. Often our expectations are just too high. Yes we can start teaching gratitude from an yearly age but developmentally, children can't understand other people's perspective fully till at least 5-7 years of age. They are absolutely the center of their own universe and believe that they are for everyone else as well. Gratitude and appreciation takes some understanding of other's perspective. It means that you understand the effort someone has put in or how others are different to yourself. That is not a skill that young children will have and it is definitely something that will develop and grow when taught.
How do we build Gratitude and Appreciation
There is more to appreciation and gratitude than just saying no but it is still significant. Often parents don't realise how much they give their kids. I know that somehow I got into the habit of buying my kids a chocolate every time I had to put fuel in the car. I like doing nice things for my kids, they are cheap and you don't even notice how much they are when you are buying fuel, but what it did was set up an expectation. I then started to resent when they wanted a chocolate every time I got fuel. But it really wasn't the kid's fault, I had set up that expectation. This type of passive consumerism is so common. It is the small toy every time you go to the shops or the chocolate milk when you go to the supermarket. By the way, there is no judgement with this. There are times, especially when your children are young, that giving your child something to eat or drink so that you can get through the groceries with your sanity is self-care. However, we need to be careful about what expectations we are creating in our children. We can't really get upset with them for wanting something everywhere we go when we have always bought them something everywhere we go.
When we do start to say "no" to our kids it is going to feel like you are being the most unfair parent in the world. Try not to get too upset by this, it is not personal. They are not thinking about all the money you have spent all the other times and how many things they already have. All they can see is that they didn't get something that they usually do. Wait till they have moved through the emotion and then let them know that you understand that it is disappointing. You "get it", usually they would get something. Then you can explain why you can't buy something every time. You can start to talk about the things that they do have but don't do it in a shaming way. Saying "you have so many thing and you don't appreciate it" is not going to help. You could say "can you think of fun things that we do together?" or "what are your favourite toys". This starts to shift the focus from what they want and can't have, and is a building block to gratitude.
Say thank you
I'm not suggesting that you enforce the begrudging "thank you" from your child. Forcing a child to say "thank you" when they aren't thankful is not teaching them gratitude. However, I do think that children need to be taught that saying "thank you" is important because it helps the other person to feel happy and appreciated. Rather than saying "say thank you", you could explain when we are given something or someone does something for us we should say "thank you" so that they feel good. They still might need a reminder to say it sometimes, but if they understand why we do it they are more likely to say it and mean it.
It is not only kids who need to say "thank you", parents need to model this if they want their children to do it too. They need to see you say "thank you" to the shop assistant, waitress, your partner and especially them. If we want our kids to be grateful, we need them to know what it feels like when someone is grateful to them. It is much easier for a child to understand why we say "thank you" when they are experiencing you saying "thank you" to them. Let them feel the joy of being appreciated so that they can share this with others. Be specific when you say "thank you" so they know what it was and how it made you or others feel. For example, don't just "say thank you for sharing", say "thank you for sharing with your sister. I can see how happy that she is because you shared."
Too often parents are doing everything for their children and then get upset because their kids don't appreciate everything they do for them. How are they supposed to appreciate all that is done for them if they have never experienced it? How do they know how hard and time consuming housework can be, if they have always had everything done for them. This doesn't mean that you have to give your children long lists of jobs to do but as they get older they can take on more responsibility for themselves. Just like learning to walk and feed themselves, children can eventually learn to dress themselves, pick up their toys, clean their room, help with dinner etc. When we do too much for our children we are robbing them of becoming independent and building their self-esteem from achieving. I have written a blog on age appropriate chores before so have a look if you want some ideas.
Part of building appreciation for what is done for them is actually by helping you do what you have to do. I know some parents will cringe at this, it is often easier to just do it yourself. But when we get them to help cut vegetables, or pass you the washing as you put it on the clothesline (if they can't reach themselves) they get to experience the effort you are putting in. Don't miss the positive conversations and fun you can have doing this together with this too.
There is a lot of controversy around whether we should be paying kids pocket money and if money should be for doing chores or if it is something that they just get. I don't really want to get into that but I do think that it is important to teach how to manage money and the need to save for things that you want. I recently listened to a podcast interviewing Laura Higgins, Senior Executive Leader – Financial Capability. When it comes to teaching our children about money, she had some great ideas. Said said that from a young age have three clear jars for your children labeled Saving, Spending and Giving. When they are given money, they divide the money into the 3 jars. You can decide how much goes into each or negotiate this with your child. By doing this they can see the money and it grow but they also learn that we don't just spend everything we have. I especially love the Giving jar. It is so important that children start to understand that there are people who need help and that they can contribute.
We need to teach our kids that there is more out there than just our little family. They need to see that some people have more and some people have less but we can help each other by contributing. They need to see us doing this by example. You could have a sponsored child that they can help write letters to, you could choose gifts for a toy drive or take a meal to someone when they are sick. If they see that there are others that have less or that need help, it is hard to feel entitled.
We can't expect that our children are going to show appreciation and gratitude. It is not something that just happens and developmentally it can take children a while to start to see beyond themselves. It is up to us to teach our kids to be grateful. We have to set boundaries, show them what it is like to experience being appreciated, give them responsibility and show them the importance of giving. Our kids can learn to be appreciative, but they need us to show them how.