Most mamas know the feeling well. You’ve been doing your best to give your child all the opportunities, experiences and material needs that you think are important. Maybe, after a rough patch when you’re feeling a bit disconnected from your child, you’ve been turning on the magic at home.
Suddenly, your child starts making ridiculous demands or complains that other kids have something they want, too. If you’re beginning to deal with an ungrateful child, I’ve got some ideas to nip it in the bud.
Full disclosure: most of these ideas came from the parenting class I’m taking on Wednesday nights at our church. They’re sourced from other parents, mixed in with my own ideas. My kids are still LITTLE, and this problem seems more common and concerning during the teenage years. So I don’t have tons of personal experience with it, but there are some really great ideas here sourced from parents of teenagers whom I really admire.
Check out my tips for teaching kids about bedtime prayer.
What are some signs of an ungrateful child?
There are some obvious signs that your kiddo is becoming an ungrateful child. You already suspect it, but is the problem worse than you originally thought?
Fret not, Mama! These things can be easily fixed. Here are some clues that it’s time to get your little friend back on track:
- frequent complaining
- whining in stores or while online shopping
- texting you Christmas wish lists in June
- snide remarks about their friends’ possessions – as if they’re entitled to the same
- needs constant access to technology to be content
- acting bored with birthday and Christmas gifts as soon as they’ve received them (keep reading for a super easy fix to this one)
- only motivated to work or adapt behavior if rewards or prizes are involved
- won’t pitch in around the house without a fight
How NOT to Deal with an Ungrateful Child
I am prone to lecturing, and I don’t know why I bother. It never works! All it does is induce shame. I don’t often notice behavioral changes as a result of talking AT my daughter.
Less talking, more action. Keep reading for more ideas.
Here’s a post you might like about discipline: threat vs. warning – how to deal with your boundary pushing wild child
What makes a child ungrateful?
So how did you reach this point? What went sideways? Oh, probably lots of things, but here are some ideas to get you thinking.
- Overindulging them in their wants – if you immediately gift your child with most things their heart desires without them having to work for it or wait for it, you’re setting yourself up for a spoiled child. Repeat after me – it is okay to meet your child’s needs and not their wants. In fact, it’s good parenting.
- Over-parenting them – helicopter parenting leads to ungrateful children. Your kids should have to struggle a little bit to solve problems, work through their emotions and disappointments, and deal with consequences from the school for bad behavior. If you are always swooping in to fix everything for your child, you’re over-parenting, and it will cause long-term problems like spoiling.
- Constantly telling yourself, “They’ve got their whole life to (insert chore); I’m gonna let them be a kid today.” Everything in moderation, I always say. You’re really not doing your child any favors with maintaining this mindset regularly. Not only will they not know HOW to do those basic things when they leave your home, but they also will be robbed of the confidence that comes from growing independence into their teenage years. By the way, here are 20 free, editable and printable chore charts – there’s sure to be one that will work for your family!
- Going nuts at the holidays and birthdays – this one is actually an easy fix, and scaling back isn’t as bad as you think. See troubleshooting tips in the next section.
- Sheltering them – this one is linked to and often coexists with over-parenting. If your child is never exposed to poverty and never forms meaningful connections with kids who are less fortunate (financially) than them, you can bet they think the whole world lives as well or better than they do.
- Something important is missing in their lives – My kids start acting out when they want something more from me or from their little lives. Even children and teenagers will try to fill holes in their heart or soothe frustrations with meaningless junk like baby dolls, video games, and expensive cell phones. We do the same thing as adults, so why should it surprise us that our kids do it?!
How do you deal with an ungrateful child?
Here are 7 strategies for dealing with an ungrateful child. Remember that if you play your cards right, this will just be a passing phase, and one that most kids go through at some point.
“Speak life” over them.
The vocabulary here is distinctively Christian, but the principle applies to people of all kinds.
The Bible says that the tongue holds the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21), and in my parenting class, we talk about using our words carefully to tackle any parenting challenge. When we “speak life” over our kids, we look for opportunities to validate the good parts of our children, even if they’re not behaving that way as often as we’d like.
For example, if your child told a lie about their school day, and you start calling them a liar, or spend all your parenting energy focused on the lie they told, they’ll likely worsen. “Speaking life” means noticing and talking often about all their truthful moments.
In the case of a child who’s regularly acting ungrateful, we’d be especially watchful for any moments in which our kids were acting grateful, and celebrate those moments – even if they’re few and far between.
Whatever we magnify will grow, so the more we talk about our children being “spoiled brats” or “ungrateful jerks,” the more they’ll live into it. Just because a child is struggling with a behavior doesn’t mean they ARE that person.
That doesn’t mean you ignore the bad behavior. We still have to give consequences, but it shouldn’t be the only thing we notice about our child. Focus on the opposite of the troubling behavior or attitude.
Have your child form meaningful connections with people who are less fortunate than them.
A lot of wonderful parents want their children to have access to the best opportunities, and they begin with their child’s school experience. By moving to a super wealthy school district or putting their kids in a private school, they know they’ll be giving their kids a leg up on college applications.
Unfortunately, there’s a downside to this approach. Kids benefit from building relationships with people less fortunate than them. It helps to develop compassion and understanding. These relationships come easily in a public school with lots of economic diversity.
It’s not really enough to have your child serve in a soup kitchen once a year. That serves as a useful reminder that people in their own city struggle to make ends meet. But it doesn’t allow for friendships and powerful conversations.
If your kids are attending private schools or very wealthy public schools that are fairly homogenous, you’ll have to work a lot harder to help them form friendships across cultural and socioeconomic divides. However, it CAN be done! Broaden their horizons to open their hearts and minds.
If you’re a Christian, avoid sending your child on “mission trips” that are little more than vacations to beach towns. Unless, of course, your child is due for a vacation! If you want to work on an ungrateful spirit, send them on a mission trip where they’re doing actual physical labor, and spending quality time with the “clients.”
Some of my most powerful memories as a teenager came on church mission trips where we made friendships with the people we served. We did very little evangelism, and instead focused on meeting basic needs and being a good listener. We also had a great time, and I’d take it over a traditional “church camp” any day. It’s the perfect antidote to bratty behavior.
If you’re looking for opportunities like this, here are some mission trip organizations I love. I have personally been on mission trips organized by every organization below:
Meet the unspoken, non-material needs in the child (within reason).
If your schedule is over-crowded, your kids are stressed, and you’re not spending quality time together as a family, your kids might be struggling. They don’t KNOW why they feel disconnected, so they just start looking for anything that will give them a “quick win.” It shouldn’t be so surprising, because we adults do this all the time!
Without veering into over-parenting, look for areas in which your child might be struggling. Do they need something as serious as a medical need met or therapy, or something as simple as more frequent hugs or quality time together not spent in a car?
If your kids basic needs are being met, they’re less likely to look for material things to fill the void. Easier said than done, right?
Teach them the value of a dollar.
If they’re old enough, put them to work. That’s the simplest way and most efficient route to gratitude. It may be well worth it to have them eliminate some other activities to make time for a first job. The only way for kids to appreciate hard work and budgeting is to give them real world experience.
If your kids aren’t old enough for a job, you can still achieve a similar effect with a list of household “jobs” that are paid. Stop buying all the extras and have them pay for it.
My favorite tool for this is the Greenlight Debit Card for kids. There’s an app that kids and parents can use to track chore competition, transfer money, and it does so much more.
I don’t recommend a system that requires cash or jars. Even though it’s really great for them to visualize dividing the money between spend, save, and give jars, that’s not how money works in the real world. They can’t connect with that the way my generation did, because they’re not watching their parents hand out cash at stores. If kids have their own Greenlight Debit Card, they get these valuable lessons in a modern format.
Practice gratitude out loud as a family.
Take time regularly to count your blessings as a family. This sort of thing has to be modeled.
Consider a chalkboard in the house where people can write what makes them feel grateful.
Mix up your November by doing a gratitude pumpkin at dinner time each night.
Here are some more ideas for practicing gratitude as a family from Sunshine Parenting.
Increase your gift-giving at unexpected times; minimize at holidays and birthdays.
There’s nothing worse than putting months of thought into your child’s birthday or Christmas gifts and then watching them tear through them all at once, completely disengaged. One week later, half the gifts remain unopened, and the kiddo is stalling at writing their thank you cards to everyone else.
Even kids who are normally delightful and full of gratitude do this. And it turns out, there’s a good reason why.
Check out this fascinating research about why kids don’t express gratitude well for gifts given at the holidays. To summarize, kids (ages 4-8) in the study viewed gifts given at holidays as an “exchange relationship,” meaning that they were less grateful for them because they perceived it as a parent or family member’s duty rather than a gift freely given out of love.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? Kids believe that parents should buy them gifts at Christmas and on their birthday. Therefore, whatever they receive doesn’t hold the same emotional value as a gift given as a surprise after an amazing effort at a soccer game, or a random present given just to say, “I love you.”
The study also revealed that kids were more grateful for experiences than material possessions. So you’d be well served to stop buying so many toys at Christmas and birthdays!
So what’s a parent to do? How does one make the transition to giving fewer gifts at Christmas? What if the holiday magic is lost?
Pairing down your birthdays and holidays isn’t as hard as you might think. If your kids are young enough, they don’t remember the previous years that well anyway, and materialism hasn’t set in as much.
If your kids are older, give them a heads up around October about your minimized holiday plans. Do the same if it’s a couple of months before their birthday. Give your kids the benefit of the doubt that they’ll be understanding if you explain your “why” well enough.
Then, if opening gifts usually takes hours, think of a really special way to fill that time that doesn’t involve gifts. Could you serve the community together in some way? Shift the focus to cooking an elaborate meal or putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle? What would be special to YOUR family?
Next, challenge yourself to spring random gifts on your kids. Have a mini stockpile of things your kids might like. Wrap them up in some fun gift wrap and bestow them on your kids as a celebration for how hard they’ve been studying, or just because you love them. These surprise gifts have a far greater impact and will encourage a grateful heart.
For more about holiday giving, check out this post about organizing and choosing great toys.
Share how you personally find contentment.
We all get caught up in wanting more, more, more sometimes. Kids are not immune to this habit, it’s just more annoying when it’s something else being demanding (rather than ourselves).
Share with your kids the ways you seek contentment and peace with what you already have. What works for you?
Prayer? Specifically, asking God for a grateful and content heart? What else might center you? For some, it’s time spent in nature, or a round of golf with a best friend. Maybe you calm down and become more peaceful if you have a nightly mug of tea, or if you get your exercise before the sun comes up. Can you move to a favorite chair at night with a good novel, a candle, and a blanket?
Teach these habits to your kids and help them discover their own ways to find serenity. Talk with them about how we can’t fill big holes in our lives, or solve major frustrations, with a trip to the store or the latest, greatest gadget. If you model appropriate, healthy, self-care, they’ll begin to understand.