My Kids Seem Ungrateful and Entitled

Janet responds to a Facebook post from a parent who shares her personal dismay “at what children across the globe suffer and what they go without,” and she is distraught by her own children’s apparent lack of gratitude and humility. While this mom admits her current mood may be the result of “post-Christmas blues,” she wants to instill these positive, empathetic traits in her own children. “How do you model this?” she asks. “I want to do better.”

Transcript of “My Kids Seem Ungrateful and Entitled”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to a question I received on Facebook about children who seem so entitled. How can we encourage their gratitude and humility?

Here’s the question on Facebook:

“Maybe it’s the post-holiday blues. Maybe it’s my inner feelings of horror at what children across the globe suffer and what they go without. I don’t know. When my children start acting entitled, I find it hardest of all to remain calm. How do you build a culture in your home of gratitude and humility? I model it when possible. How do you model this? How do you talk about it? I want to do better.”

So this question made me think hard. What this is really about is the development of empathy. And this parent is absolutely correct that modeling is the most powerful way that we help children do that. And the empathy we model for others is a big part of that. But the biggest part is the way we show empathy to our child. Children learn most through what they experience in their relationships with their significant others, with us. This has the most profound impact.

First of all, I totally empathize with this mother. There are so many issues in the world that are deeply painful for us, and oftentimes we feel powerless to do anything about them. So this is a very uncomfortable feeling for us. And then when we see something in our children that hits us right in that button, it’s going to feel scary because not only do we feel powerless, but we feel like we’re not even doing our job raising children who care. So I do understand this parent’s discomfort.

But I would start by taking a big step back here. I’m hearing what she’s saying, first, that she recognizes that she probably has post-holiday blues. And children absolutely have difficulty at this time. Maybe we don’t talk about this enough: how hard it is to not only transition into the holidays and deal with all the excitement and stimulation and changes of routine, but it’s very challenging to transition out of them. Especially for children who are more sensitive to transitions, since they have so many internal transitions going on in these early years — so much development and growth.  Winding down out of all that excitement and energy, relatives and parties, downshifting back into regular life doesn’t bring out the best in children, because they’re uncomfortable.

Our children’s behavior is always, always a reflection of their comfort level. So when they’re feeling good about themselves, when they’re getting enough rest, they’re feeling calm on the inside and positive about their relationships with us, then we’ll see generosity in our children. We’ll see a magnanimous attitude, stunning empathy sometimes. But just like with us as adults, that’s much less likely when they are stressed or feeling judged by us, which is again a normal thing that we do as parents. We judge their behavior.

This mother indicates that she has more than one child, so there are sibling issues going on. There are older siblings that are probably getting judged for some of their behavior with their younger siblings or vice versa. And then they hold on. This is similar to another podcast I recently recorded about, quote, “lying, stealing and hoarding.” And in the podcast I explained that I don’t like using those terms around children, especially the hoarding and the stealing because those are more adult perceptions, but those feelings of wanting to hold onto things or have more and not let anyone else have any of them, those feelings come from an uncomfortable “wanting” place.

So to model the kind of empathy this parent wants her children to develop (which I’m sure they have developed in some ways, but they’re just not showing it right now, or when they’re not showing it, it really bugs her), ideally the place for us to go with that is to be curious. I wonder why my child is acting like this?

That curiosity gets squelched if we immediately judge and we get our button pushed, and then we’re just in ourselves and, yuck, and we’re not open to seeing what’s going on.

So if we can remember that there’s always a reason that children behave the way they do, and it’s always a reflection on some level of their comfort, the feelings they have going on inside, their stress levels, then we can model empathy even in those situations.

Young children don’t have this worldview that we develop as adults. Their worlds are very small and, again, with all this development going on inside… we develop more in these early years than in all the other years of our lives put together. So there’s good reason for them to be self centered. It makes sense.

And I can relate to this actually. I’ve been stressed out lately and it makes me feel very stuck inside myself and defensive and not at my best. It’s hard to remember to be grateful for what I have, to be humble, and that the issues I’m dealing with really aren’t that terrible in the scheme of things.  And it makes me feel better when I step out of myself a little bit, but that’s not my tendency. My tendency is to be grrrr, to be inside in my feelings, holding on.

And yet with my more mature view (most of the time I have a more mature view) because I have the experience to tell me that this, too, shall pass and that, in the scheme of things, even in the scheme of my life, this is just a little blip that I’m going to get through. Young children can’t really do that. They don’t have that perspective.

So keeping all that in mind, here’s what I would recommend to this parent. First of all, I recommend her taking from this a greater understanding of her sensitivities around this topic, which again, are valid and totally understandable and wonderful, but when we know that we have a sensitivity around a certain topic and that this could be a button for us with our children, it can help us to put that in its place. And it sounds like this parent already recognizes that this is a sensitivity for her.

So we can say: Okay, this is a sensitivity for me, but this isn’t really about my children and where they are. This is about me. And now I can work on putting it in its place so it doesn’t get in the way of me modeling that empathy for my children, and wanting to understand why they’re behaving the way they are.

It’s kind of fascinating because children will tend to show us those sensitivities by displaying those behaviors. It seems like they know. And maybe they know because of the way that we’ve reacted to it before. They see that that’s a vulnerable place for us. So, maybe on some level they’re trying to explore that, as the healthy learners that they are and very invested in learning about us. But again, it’s a natural tendency to be, “Gimme, gimme, gimme,” when we’re not feeling good inside.

One thing I’ve noticed in working with parents is that there’s a tendency that many of us have to want our children to be banners for our causes. I’m not saying this parent is doing that, but it’s dangerous, because it’s going to lead us in a distancing direction from our child. We’re going to be judging them. As entitled as they can be, they’re also very honest and open and they put it out there. “Honestly, I want every single thing and I don’t want you to have any.” And if we want them to develop those qualities and characteristics like generosity, empathy, regret, develop their higher selves, then we’ve got to understand that all sides of themselves need to be accepted by us for them to be able to do those things.

So again, our own relationship with our child is going to be the most profound, formative teaching method that we have. We start from a place of acceptance, then we’re interested, then we’re curious. Then yes, we absolutely give them feedback. Let them know that we can’t do this for them and that’s not okay and we can’t allow them to do certain things, but that has to come from a place of unconditional acceptance.

And then from there, there are of course outside things that we can start to incorporate. Understanding that the way children learn is, number one, through our relationship and our modeling and, two, through meaningful experiences. There will be opportunities, there will be organic opportunities.

That might mean taking our three year old to help a neighbor who’s ill, somebody that they recognize, and understanding that that will be more impactful then taking our child to feed a large group of homeless people when they’re only three years old, or taking them to a march or a rally. Keeping it smaller and more child centered so that our child is participating in the activity. Maybe making choices about what to bring to the children of this ailing neighbor, let’s say, or to the neighbor. Those are the kinds of baby steps that will open our children’s eyes to what giving and empathy and compassion feel like. Keeping it small, keeping it meaningful to our child.

The lessons are in the day to day, in the moment to moment between us, and in our smaller community.

So again, I totally empathize with where this parent’s coming from. I love that she has questions: “How do you model this? How do you talk about it? I want to do better.” This is both easier and harder than we might think. It’s harder because it’s about our generous spirit towards our children and leading with curiosity, and acceptance is a given. And we’re not going to be perfect. That’s a given too. And some of the best modeling we can do is in terms of humility and gratitude. “I lost my patience with you. I don’t like the way that I acted and I’m really sorry. I’m sure that you are very tired and it’s hard to get back into our regular routines when we’ve had all this holiday time and, yeah, there is a let down after the holidays and we just want more and more and more.”

I would make sure that you’re not letting your children walk all over you or that you’re giving in because you want to avoid tantrums. There’s always a reason that they have those feelings and it’s actually not that they need that thing that they’re asking for. So, being that leader and then understanding that the relationship we have with our child is going to be the most profound teacher for them. Then we can start to explore other ways to guide our children in what empathy, what getting out of ourselves and into giving looks like. These are developmental processes that need to be nurtured and trusted to a certain degree and allowed to bloom. We can join our child in a way that can make us feel like we’re acting out of the highest part of ourselves.

I really hope some of that helps.

Also, both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com, and in audio, where they’re particularly popular, at Audible.com.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

1 Comment

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Very interesting and helpful indeed

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