You know what’s annoying? When your kids don’t know how to fix their own food. You’d think they’d adapt more quickly given that they need it to survive. Nope. Over time and motivated purely by a selfish desire for more sleep, my husband and I started showing them how to crack eggs and flip pancakes.
But we never assumed that they come out of the womb knowing how to fix Pop-Tarts. Even when motivated by their hunger, kids still need to be taught. They require modeling and inductive lessons. They need positive reinforcement and even negative consequences about every. single. part. of life. Even the simple ones. It took work. Intentional, exhausting, repetitive work.
Yet parents often assume that gratitude comes embedded at birth.
I know I fell victim to this early on. I thought that my children–who couldn’t wipe their own butts–would somehow have the presence of mind to recognize the sacrifice their parents made to take them to Chuck E. Cheese. That they would appreciate how stressful and exhausting it is to plan around birthday parties and nap times. Yes, these children, who couldn’t walk without being directly taught, were supposed to thank us for ultimately spending $40 for three Pixy Sticks and a TMNT sticker.
Stupidly, I even complained aloud that they never even said thank you. I wasn’t even being ironic. I think my feelings were genuinely hurt that my toddlers couldn’t muster up some statement of recognition for all we had done for them.
And then I felt like a buffoon. Here I was going through the steps of making sure my kids could take care of their physical needs without ever once attending to their social skills. I realized late that, like everything else, kids have to be explicitly taught expected social behaviors.
It was awkward, but my husband and I began explaining how and when our kids should express their gratitude. We even said things like, “If you had fun, you need to say thank you!” We role-played gratitude: “I’m going to ask if you had fun, and you should say, ‘Yes! Thank you for taking us!’ Ready?”
Ugh. It sounded so self-serving. And in that circumstance it was. But it modeled what they should do when it serves others. It’s like that phrase, “More is caught than is taught.” We got into the habit of pointing out our gratitude, which I admit felt so discourteous and showy, even when it was done in private later: “Did you see how I thanked that man for handing me the bag?”
The process has evolved but is still imperfect. We still have to go through cues (“What do you need to say…?”) Ideally we could drop the cue altogether, but it’s a work in progress. My husband and I still model it to each other in front of our kids: “That was a good idea to go to the park, Mom!” “Thank you for taking us to get ice cream, Dad!” It does start to sound a bit like a Daniel Tiger episode, but they’re getting there.
Sometimes we take a harsher approach. If we give our children a treat and they don’t say thank you, we take it back and make them say it. On one occasion, my oldest complained that he had less popcorn than his sister, so I took his away completely. You say thank you. Period.
It took a while for me to figure out that I can’t complain about my children being ungrateful if I’m not willing to put in the work to change it. Because, as crappy and frustrating as it sounds, their ingratitude is a reflection on my parenting.
And yeah it’s tough and tiring, but it’s much easier to teach gratitude than it is to teach them to cook. Hell, I still can’t make an omelet.