Your Ungrateful Child Is Normal, And Will Likely Turn Out Just Fine

by Sara Farrell Baker
MNStudio/ Shutterstock

We all want to raise polite, decent members of society. Many of us start teaching our children to say things like “please” and “thank you” before they can even speak. My kids would reach for a cracker, and I’d ask them “What do you say?” After I handed them the cracker, again with the “What do you say?” I would pat myself on the back when the occasional thanks would escape their lips without having to prompt them.

But teaching your kids to say please and thank you does not teach them to be grateful. Those are rote responses, and they are polite and socially desired. But having a grateful small child would make you a unicorn parent because it just doesn’t happen. (Keep in mind, unicorn parents are an insufferable breed for which no one is grateful so be glad your ungrateful child is relatively normal there.)

Having an ungrateful child is completely normal. Their worlds revolve around them, and no amount of momsplaining how fortunate they are or forced volunteerism is going to change that. Their brains don’t work that way yet. Most kids grow into being thankful and even mildly altruistic eventually, though, so don’t freak out.

Children have very little capacity to think beyond their own wants and desires and the perpetual “right now” impulse. Is it embarrassing to have a child who kicks up when told you aren’t buying the toy they see at the store or the candy bar in the checkout aisle? Sure. But it doesn’t make you a bad parent (even though the are always parents in the comments section who will scream otherwise).

Once, I made the unfortunate mistake of thinking I could guilt my then-3-year-old into parting with some of his toys by telling him about children who didn’t have any toys. Some kids didn’t have toys, and he was very lucky to have so many, and we should share so that more kids could have fun toys. I wanted to clear out our cluttered home and neglected to run a box or two of stuffed animals he never looked at twice to Goodwill under cover of darkness like a smart person. I hoped that by pointing out all he had and appealing to his generally kind nature, I could have him participate in the process and teach him some life lessons while gaining a cleaner house.


First, he cried. Like I said, he is a kind child, so he felt sad about the idea of children who didn’t have toys of their own. But did he put a single toy in the Donate box? Of course not. Because those were his toys, and he couldn’t bear to part with them even if he had never and would never play with them. Instead, he asked if we could go to the store and buy toys for those kids. And while we are there, could we also get him a toy because he likes toys?

Any effort to instill some gratitude in your tiny offspring is going to either fall on tiny, not-listening ears or backfire completely. Returning all their presents and canceling Christmas to teach them a lesson about being little shits while you play Santa behind the scenes? Well, you’ll save some money, but it’s doubtful it will be a fun Christmas for anyone — including you — if it’s shrouded in punishments. Sure, they might deserve it, but don’t expect the lack of presents to teach any lessons outside of “Don’t screw with Mom in December.”

And come New Year’s, they will still be little shits. It’s just their natural state.

Hoping some good old-fashioned community service will do the trick? At best and if you are incredibly lucky, your kids may be helpful. At worst and far more probable, they’re going to get in the way of adults who are trying to do actual work for the good of their fellow man. Not that trying to teach your kids to be giving with their time and resources is bad parenting, it is most definitely not. But it’s also not reinforcing lessons of goodwill and empathy when it is forced upon them.

When they’re a little older and have the ability to build a little empathy, that’s when all your good intentions can be put to work. Even something as simple as encouraging your kids to allocate a portion of their allowance or tooth fairy money for charity can get the ball rolling. But likely, if they’ve still got all their baby teeth, they probably don’t give two farts about anyone outside of the almighty I. If they’re still selfish twerps when you’re looking at colleges, that’s another story. Sorry.