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Is teaching gratitude to children a doomed concept?

10 March 2018

These days we hear a lot about gratitude, and about the need to teach this concept to our children and pupils.  It is a habit that can be learned, so we are told, and we cannot start early enough with it.  Hence the incorporation of gratitude into so many school wellbeing programs.

I must admit that (rightly or wrongly) I am sceptical.  Are children mature enough to understand the concept of gratitude?  Are we right to expect it from them, and if yes:  from what age precisely?

When I think back to my own childhood, I can honestly say that I was never a troublesome youngster.  I don’t think that I ever felt arrogant or entitled, and whilst my family have never been rich, we have certainly, at least during my lifetime, always been comfortable.  There were presents on birthdays and at Christmas, we went for the occasional city break to places such as Munich or Berlin or to my mother’s favourite town Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and once a year, in the summer holidays, we had a three-week hiking holiday in the Alps, first in Bavaria, then in Austria and later in Switzerland. 

The mountains got gradually higher and the hikes more challenging, but the format remained.  There was no desperate effort of my parents to find amusing things for the children to do, such as theme parks, Disneyland or specific children camp activities.  My sister and I were simply expected to find the things interesting that our parents chose for us, and we usually did.  In the summer we went for long mountain walks, and on our city breaks we mainly visited churches and museums.  In the evenings we went for a swim or played card and board games.  TV was banned during holidays, mobile devices had not been invented.  If we had been given alternatives, we might have been less keen, but as it were, these holidays instilled in us children the habits of a lifetime and a genuine interest in nature and culture (and in playing Canasta!).

These days, when I look at posts in local social media groups for example, I feel sorry for all these desperate parents who compete with each other to find the most spectacular holiday activities for their children to join in, or the most exciting things to do for a birthday party, or the most extravagantly decorated birthday cake, or a venue for a themed party for a 3-year-old toddler.  

Does all this parental effort pay off in terms of gratitude? Or does it result in entitled youngsters, even less inclined to show or express gratitude than my generation was?  If everything centres round the children and they STILL don’t show gratitude commensurate with all these efforts, does that lead to even more desperate parenting, parental frustration or even resentment - and to children’s unhappiness once they sense they cannot satisfy their parents’ craving for their gratitude? Maybe the sheer volume of presents and attention they are given overwhelms them and leads to them feeling an unhealthy pressure of meeting the expectations made of them in return?

For let me tell you:  while I have never been an entitled, ungrateful little brat, I cannot remember actively showing or expressing much gratitude about my happy childhood either when I was young.  I somehow don’t think that children are wired that way or that their inherently selfish nature allows for it.  Children are naturally self-centred and egoistic.  If they grow up in reasonably stable circumstances, they don’t reflect much about them – they simply take their comforts for granted.  No matter how much you tell your children that there are people less fortunate, people who can’t afford a home or enough food or an education, they can’t grasp this until they are mature enough.

Therefore, while teaching gratitude is a well-intentioned concept, it is doomed to fail (or, worse still, to lead to insincere and hollow rhetoric), if commenced too early.  There is something contrived and unnatural about the ritual of forcing children to reflect about the things they are grateful for when they are too young to grasp concepts of emotional intelligence, altruism or perspective. 

To protect us from feeling offended by their lack of gratitude, we adults should not plan our lives around our children’s perceived need to be entertained or to be showered with gifts.  A certain amount of downtime and boredom, as we all know, is healthy for children and a great instigator of creativity and imagination.  And for that reason, parents should do the things with their children they enjoy themselves, thus teaching them to be curious about the world around them by setting their own example and guiding them rather than pandering to them.

This way, even if your children seem to show little obvious gratitude, at least you will have had a good time yourselves and feel less resentful. You will avoid the danger of putting pressure on them by overwhelming them with expectations of gratitude. And one day – trust me – your children will be thankful to you.  They may never express it in words, but just sit back and watch how they emulate the habits, values and interests you have taught them when they were young.  There is no better reward.

The Blog On Gratitude II deals with the importance of a gratitude mindset in adults.

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