Four Ways Parents Reduce Gratitude in Their Kids

I recently witnessed three teenage girls at a shopping village with their mom. They were Christmas shopping and completely caught up in the season. As they interacted, I heard the teens getting louder and louder. Without trying, I began to hear what they were talking about. Each of them felt they deserved certain gifts from their grandparents; one mentioned how she could not live without an Anthropologie outfit and another how she needed several sets of clothes for the various parties she’d be attending. They grew upset when things didn’t go exactly as they thought they should.

What struck me was how their mother actually fostered this attitude. The girls showed no trace of gratitude for the lifestyle they enjoyed; mom showed no sign of cultivating gratitude along with their sense of entitlement. She seemed to agree with their assumptions.

Quietly, I wondered if these girls experienced a mild sense of unhappiness.

What Too Many Parents Do By Accident

I believe millions of moms and dads actually reduce an attitude of gratitude in their children each and every day by the way we lead them. Instead of gratitude, we find a growing sense of resentment and entitlement among American adolescents. It’s sad, but too often, it’s our fault. Gratitude doesn’t bloom unless we cultivate it.

And Generation Z desperately needs us to do just that.

“One of the most robust findings in the field of positive psychology is on the benefits of gratitude. It helps stave off depression, evokes positive emotions in others, and increases well-being,” says psychologist Nancy Darling. So… what reduces gratitude?

Four Ways Parents Reduce Gratitude in Kids

1. Giving them more than they need… and acting as though they need it.

Whenever possessions and perks are treated as assumptions, it tends to decrease a person’s gratitude. In other words, if I think I deserve everything I have, I’ll likely not be as thankful as if I treat them as gifts. When our children were growing up, my wife and I taught them that having anything beyond food, clothes and a roof over our heads—is a bonus. We didn’t do it to make them feel guilty, but to help them feel grateful. I took them on trips to serve the urban poor and to serve people in developing nations. It gave us perspective on what’s normal and what’s a bonus. To be clear—we can actually reduce gratitude in kids when we offer more than they need, and we don’t talk about the “extras” as an added gift. My parents grew up during the Great Depression and led us to treat everything we had as a gift. I attempted to do the same with our kids, and while they enjoy more than I did, my son (especially) is always expressing thanks and is a minimalist as a young professional.

2. Fostering a sense of entitlement instead of a work ethic.

While a sense of gratitude is not the opposite of a sense of entitlement, it’s very close to an antonym. We foster our kids’ sense of entitlement by giving them what they should earn; by assuming they deserve all the latest gadgets and portable devices; and by not instructing them to communicate gratitude for gifts, favors, perks and other benefits. Along the way, they begin to feel they don’t need to say thanks. After all, they deserve all these blessings. One of the most efficient methods of cultivating a sense of gratitude is to build a strong work ethic in them—teaching them through experience how to work for what they want. Along the way, they recognize the value of waiting and working—and can appreciate it when someone does the same for them. Gratitude and work ethic often go hand in hand. Failing to build this frequently results in ingratitude.

3. Focusing on materialistic rather than intrinsic goals.

Psychologist Jean Twenge discovered a correlation between the materialistic culture we currently experience and the sadness we often see in students. When parents, teachers, coaches and other leaders focus on material (external) goods, it creates a lens that values material possessions over internal qualities. And I believe materialism goes hand-in-hand with ingratitude. There isn’t a causality relationship, but there is a correlation. When our focus is materialistic “things” we drift from being grateful for the things that actually matter and satisfy us. It has been said, “Too many people buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they don’t even like.” We develop gratitude when we focus on items that money cannot purchase.

4. Failing to express gratitude yourself.

When we take positive elements in our life for granted and neglect to express thanks for those blessings, we actually reduce the likelihood of gratitude in our kids. People do what people see. James Baldwin wrote, “Children have never been good at listening to their elders but they have never failed to imitate them.” The best way to reduce gratitude in young people is to fail to express gratitude yourself. The surest way to expand gratitude is to live an ongoing grateful life. No lecture necessary. I have found that my mother’s constant grateful spirit—even over the smallest of blessings—has turned me into the same kind of person. One of my college dormmates once said to me, “You’d make a good poor person.” I think that backhanded compliment meant that he saw me as a person who got excited about even small benefits that came my way.

This holiday season, let’s avoid the list above and begin a habit of gratitude. It’s attractive.

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Four Ways Parents Reduce Gratitude in Their Kids