Ungrateful children? How to look beyond ungrateful behavior

Find out reasons of ungrateful behavior, how parents might be causing ungratefulness, and 6 steps of guiding our children into gratitude.

Ungrateful children? How to look beyond ungrateful behavior

"This a wonderful day. I've never seen this one before."
Maya Angelou, on gratitude

Parenthood is like pouring from a cup.

I learned many things in my one year of parenting but one thing is particular. When things are going well, I am able to give and my child is able to receive in harmony. This kind of giving and receiving gives me nothing but joy.

But sometimes, things don't go that great. Sometimes my precious boy doesn't go to sleep even after his dad and I sing to him for full three hours in the dark of the night. Holding or cuddling doesn't work either. In those times I find myself wondering:

"Why am I not enough? Am I doing something wrong?"

Communication becomes tricky

When children start expressing themselves with words, they get to have a say in things. When they say ungrateful things and act in an ungrateful way, we feel as if we are not enough. This happens every day. When our children don't like a gift, don't like what's for dinner or complain about having to take a walk to the park... In those times we feel as if our parenting is not appreciated and we ask ourselves:

"Am I giving enough? Am I giving too much? Am I modeling the right behavior? Should I punish ungrateful behavior?"

It's all normal

This article will clear out all unanswered questions about ungrateful behavior in children. But before we dive into it, let me give you the important TLDR. Ungrateful behavior is completely normal in kids.

There's more to it. Our children's ungrateful moments provide us parents with two fantastic opportunities. One is building on our relationship and the other, modeling good behavior.

Let's begin.

What does it mean to have ungrateful children anyway?

A child might express disinterest, dislike, or objection to something a parent offers with good intentions. When this happens often, we tend to label our children as ungrateful.

Ungrateful behavior offends parents. We resent our children when they don't respond to things that we give to them in the way that we expect them to.

For example, we put a lot of time and resources into preparing dinner. Our children take a bite and choose to spend the rest of the evening running in the house. Is this an ungratefulness towards our time?

Our children have a right to not like us

Parenting has a giving nature. In any parent-child relationship, the parent is the giver and the child is the receiver. But we feel defeated when our children don't display appreciation for the things we give to them in the way we expect them to.

Our children are dependent on us. Their dependency creates a false impression that they don't have a right to object to us.

The truth is, our children have the right to not like our parenting, our gifts, or the things that we do and say. They even have a right to not like us.

Children are entitled to our love and protection

We sometimes complain that our kids feel entitled to the food and shelter we provide. The fact is: they should. They should feel entitled to our unconditional protection and love.

Because of my understanding of unconditional love, I actively try to free my child of the burden of liking me. My child should know that he has the right to disagree, be angry at and not like me from time to time. This way he will see that he has a choice in everything in life. And not liking someone you are dependent on is not an exception. This builds self-esteem.

Punishing ungrateful behavior is not an option

There are types of entitlement that we want to avoid. Some of these are when our children expect bribery, refuse to help with anything, or don't take "no" for an answer... But we can alter these behaviors only if we understand their root causes.

Punishing ungrateful behavior is not an option in a healthy parent-child relationship.

  • We shouldn't react to ungrateful behavior with a time out.
  • We should avoid taking away something they like or the thing that they were ungrateful for.
  • Shaming them for their opinions is not an option either.

These might create a false sense in our children that their opinions and emotions are not important.

We'll see in a minute how we can guide our children into a gratitude mindset. But before we do that, let's have a look at the reasons behind ungrateful behavior.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash

Understanding the viewpoint of ungrateful kids

Let's imagine you and your children spent a fun yet exhausting picnic day in the forest that's located at a 2 hour drive from your home.

Your children had a lot of fun but once the time came to get in the car to drive back home they started complaining: "Do we really have to drive back?" "Can't we stop at a fast-food location on the way?" "We never get to do anything fun(!)"

Ungratefulness is a behavior, not a character trait

Now let's imagine an adult in a similar situation. Have you tried going to a fun yet exhausting adult activity and dreaded the long way back home? When you complain about the long drive to your friend, are you being ungrateful for the fun you had, or are you only expressing your tiredness?

Ungratefulness is a behavior, it's not a character trait. Most children, when they are labeled as ungrateful, are probably only expressing themselves.

4 reasons why a child displays ungrateful behavior

1) They are disappointed and cannot hide it

A typical ungratefulness scene: grandma buys a gift. The child unwraps the gift and hates it. The truth is, when a child feels disappointed, that's the feeling they display. Adults can find silver linings in disappointing situations. But children's brains are yet to mature. Controlling emotions is a skill that develops with guidance and over time.

2) They are overstimulated

When children behave ungratefully after a day at the theme park, you might ask yourself the question: "We are doing so many amazing activities but they are not grateful, why?" The answer might be hidden in your question. Children get overstimulated a lot more easily than adults. So, too much of even a good thing might challenge them.

3) They are tired, hungry, or thirsty

Adults can cope with challenging physical conditions a lot better than children. Our children get exhausted too, but they don't realize it right away. They do signal their exhaustion when they need rest, but they don't necessarily use words for it. Instead, they become whiny which might sound as if they are being ungrateful to us. It's up to us adults to catch those exhaustion moments and give them an opportunity to refuel.

4) They are having a hard time transitioning

Children cannot adapt to changing circumstances as easily as adults. Even a day trip, dinner at your friend's house, or a visit from a relative changes their routine. They need time to adapt. When they become uncomfortable inside, they might display negative and ungrateful behavior.

4 ways parents might be causing ungrateful behavior

As parents, we might be causing ungrateful behavior without noticing it.

1) Are we judging them?

Do we find ourselves making comments such as:

  • "Why are you being so ungrateful?" (Hint: our children don't have a clue what that word means, but they still feel judged.)
  • "Your grandma spent so much time finding those pair of pj's for you. You made her upset when you said you don't want a new pair."
  • "I spend hours to make you dinner every night but you never ever finish your plate."

In these cases, our children can feel judged and push back.

2) Do they sense a lack of connection?

Children live in the present moment by default. They are 100% in touch with what's going on in their surroundings. This includes their relationship with us. They can feel our stress, anxiety, and lack of connection.

When they behave negatively, can it be because they are trying to connect with us by mimicking us?

3) Are they exploring our boundaries?

Our children are very interested in learning about us and the world. Sometimes they seem selfish and demanding (the "everything is all about me" moments). But in those times, they are being completely and 100% honest. And they might be testing where our boundaries are.

It's up to us parents to draw positive boundaries, by giving them healthy no's and constructive feedback.

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4) Are we grateful enough?

When children see what we do, it's far more effective on their behavior than what we tell them to do.

If we tell our children to be empathetic and grateful and generous all the time, but we fail to showcase what these mean in everyday settings, they will not adopt them.

Most parents unknowingly model ungratefulness every day. When we complain about the traffic, the rain, the way we look, our house or our car, we can expect our children to develop a similar narrative.

During a family vacation to the Smoky Mountains our son had a challenging moment.. but he sought and found comfort in the arms of his mom.
Photo by Jordan Whitt / Unsplash

6 steps of guiding children into gratitude

Gratitude is an amazing state of mind. For an adult, feeling grateful is an advanced level of self-fulfillment. The only problem is, our children are not yet capable of figuring out the abstract concept of gratitude. The good news is, we can plant the seeds for gratitude in our children on small everyday encounters.

1) Accept

Accepting a situation as it is makes up the core of good parenting. Accepting our children's ungrateful behavior doesn't mean that we agree to keep it that way. Quite the opposite. It gives us a starting point. We can guide our children into better behavior by paying attention to root causes.

2) Get curious

"Why is my child acting this way?"

Curiosity is an important step in solving any challenging situation. We might run a quick check of the possible reasons. Is it because she is dysregulated, overstimulated, tired, hungry, disappointed? Or is it because she is trying to connect with me, get me to the present moment, or mimic me?

Whatever the root cause, a curious mindset is a lot effective than a judgemental one.

3) Acknowledge

Let our children know that we are putting an effort into understanding them. Let them hear these words from us:

  • "I can see that you are not enjoying dinner tonight. You don't have to eat it if you don't like it."
  • "I understand that you are tired to walk that far."
  • "I can see why you don't want to share your toys with your cousin."
  • "I understand why that gift from grandma disappointed you."
  • "It's okay to not like something."
  • "It's okay to be tired."
  • "It's okay to feel like having more french fries, I feel that too sometimes."

When you acknowledge your child's difficult feelings, you are one step into potentially having a rational conversation. This is an opportunity to redirect them into good behavior. Of course, like everything else in parenting, this requires practice.

4) Practice empathy

Empathy is the antidote to ungratefulness. When our children put themselves in the shoes of others, they are less likely to behave ungratefully. Of course, this doesn't mean that we should forcefully try to put them into other people's shoes. For example, we should avoid saying:

  • "Your grandma is feeling very sad because you did not like her present."
  • "There are many kids in the world who don't have a single toy, but you keep asking for new toys."

Instead, we should use everyday exercises to understand other people's feelings:

  • "Why do you think Jane was so sad when she had to leave the park earlier than us today with her mom?"
  • "Why do you think the guy at the red light was mad at us when we couldn't start the car on time? Do you think he had a hard time with his boss?"

"The more you give your child’s brain practice at thinking of others, the more capable he will be of having compassion." Dan Siegel in "The Whole Brain Child"

5) Model gratitude

Practicing gratitude vocally in everyday settings gives our children a chance to mimic us.

At a calm moment, we might express our gratitude for being able to walk on a sunny day at the park. Or while we are calmly waiting in a queue to buy ice-cream. Or when we are sitting on our couch reading a book.

  • "I am so grateful for this book. I enjoy it so much."
  • "I am so grateful for our family's health."
  • "I'm so grateful for having a child like you, you bring me joy everyday."

6) Bonus: Model helping others

We like to preach to our children about how good it is to help others but how many of us actively help others?

Make sure you visibly help others in front of your kids, be it helping an old lady with her groceries, opening the door for a stranger, or saying thank you to random people.

As a further step, you might organize activities such as volunteering at an animal shelter or bringing food to a sick neighbor where they can be in charge of being helpful to others.

Apparent aims to help every parent in the world become an emotional coach for their children. We pack mindful parenting, psychology, and neuroscience insights into a weekly letter and ebooks.