A few nights ago, after cleaning up from the play date I had organized for my 2½-year-old, changing his diaper, and refilling his water, I was about to start cooking him dinner before giving him a bath when the subject of Thanksgiving came up. He didn’t know what it was, so I tried to explain it to him. But somewhere between It’s a special day when we all think about how grateful we are for what we have and So, basically, it’s all about giving thanks, my son took off to terrorize our dog, and I was left stirring pasta that, five minutes later, I had to remind my son to thank me for.
My husband and I are incredibly lucky to be able to give our son what he needs and often what he wants, and we are raising him in a wonderful town in which many families do the same. Yet he’s growing up in a bubble, and that terrifies me. If he never truly struggles for things—important things—and he doesn’t spend much time with people who do, will he ever realize he’s got it so good? And will he ever want to do anything to make the world better? I know—rich/white/entitled people problems. This is the upper-middle-class parent’s existential enigma: How can we lovingly provide for our kids without turning them into spoiled brats? How can I teach my child to be thankful?
It isn’t a frivolous question. Research suggests that kids who are overindulged by their caregivers are more likely than other kids to grow into adults who are obsessed with fame, wealth, and attractiveness, who are less skilled, and who aren’t very conscientious or thoughtful. “They could basically give two hoots about contributing to the community, working for a better society, or helping others without anything in return,” explains David Bredehoft, a professor of psychology emeritus at Concordia University in Minnesota, who has spent more than a decade studying overindulgence and is the co-author of the upcoming How Much Is Too Much? with researchers Connie Dawson and Jean Illsley Clarke. Ungrateful kids are unhappier and less academically successful than their more thankful peers, and, unsurprisingly, they have fewer friends, too. (Bredehoft is careful to point out that his research is correlational, so we can’t say for sure that overindulgence or ungratefulness cause these attributes. They may be linked to them for other reasons.)
But before you start freaking out that your daughter is going to end up like the Real Housewives of New York City, let me mention a few caveats. To some degree, every kid is ungrateful, at least toward her parents, and that’s natural. “Often, parents are the least appreciated in a child’s world,” says Ross Thompson, a developmental psychologist at the University of California at Davis. That’s a somewhat perplexing fact, but in many ways, Thompson says, it makes sense. Gratitude is based on expectations: You’re more likely to feel grateful toward a store employee who goes out of his way to show you where to find the gravy than you are for the checkout clerk who rings you up, just doing his job. Likewise, “children and adults in our society both live with the expectation that adults should and will take care of children, and that children, especially when they are young, can confidently expect that care,” Thompson says. In other words, your kid isn’t going to be supremely grateful for the 4,392 times you have sung “The Wheels on the Bus,” picked her up from soccer practice, and made her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because that’s just what parents in our culture do. Get over yourself.
And sometimes, bratty behavior is simply a sign of normal development. That’s particularly true of toddlers and young preschoolers, who can’t regulate their emotions as well as older kids do. “When they get their mind fixed on getting a particular toy, or indulging in a treat just before dinner, their lack of cognitive flexibility can make it hard for them to think they can ever possibly be happy if they don’t get it,” Thompson says. “It’s easy for a parent to see that [child] as overindulged, maybe even entitled, but it’s really reflecting a self-regulation problem.” (For more on the fun behaviors caused by a lack of self-regulation, see my temper tantrums column.) All this isn’t to suggest that you shouldn’t try to instill gratitude in toddlers or that you should always give preschoolers what they want; it just means that tantrums and selfish demands aren’t a sign that your young child is turning into a holy terror.
By the time kids are 4½ or so, though, they should have a pretty well developed capacity for self-regulation. You should be hearing less I need it NOW! and more Thank you, Mom. Kids should also be able to, though not always be happy to, take no for an answer. In general, if you see your kid constantly yearning for more, that’s a sign of a gratitude problem—she’s clearly not very appreciative of what she already has, says Jeffrey Froh, a psychologist at Hofstra University and the author of the forthcoming book Making Grateful Kids. Another potential red flag, Thompson says, is if your kid has real trouble balancing her own needs and wants with those of others—for instance, if she demands that you cater to her all the time at the cost of her siblings’ or your needs.
Before I get into how you can unspoil your kid, it’s important to understand how kids become spoiled and ungrateful in the first place, because often the problem starts with the parent. (Happy Thanksgiving!) Also, there’s more than one way to “overindulge” your child in potentially harmful ways. Certainly, giving your kids too many things—toys, new clothes, or trips to the circus—is a form of overindulgence. But Bredehoft says that the dangers of overindulgence also extend to actions that overnurture or overcoddle kids—i.e., if you do things for your children that they should be doing for themselves. If you’re still tying Jack’s shoes when all of his friends are tying their own shoes, you’re overindulging him—in effect holding him back by not letting him develop age-appropriate skills and self-confidence. When we intervene in this way, it doesn’t exactly make our kids ungrateful, but it can make them demanding and whiny because “they feel incapable,” says Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of the forthcoming How Toddlers Thrive.
You can also overindulge your kids by raising them in an unstructured environment, Bredehoft says, which means that you either don’t set enough rules or that you don’t enforce the rules you have. If little Lily isn’t allowed to stand on chairs, but she does it all the time and your typical response is to bribe her to stop with extra dessert, then you’re overindulging her because she’s not suffering negative consequences for breaking your rule—instead, she’s getting cookies. This kind of indulgence can turn kids into entitled brats fast, because after all, they’re always the ones in charge.
There’s a final way that parents may overindulge their kids, says Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck: They make their kids feel entitled by how they speak of them. “When kids think, ‘I’m great, I’m special, things are coming to me because of my wonderfulness and specialness,’ there’s no gratitude there,” she says. “So the parents who are always telling their kids how brilliant they are and how much better than other kids they are, who go and fight with coaches and teachers who give them any criticism, they’re telling their kids, ‘you have everything coming to you by virtue of who you are.’ ” I certainly wouldn’t feel grateful for having an awesome life if I were told over and over again that I deserved nothing less—and I also wouldn’t be very interested in helping others, because hey, they probably deserve their misfortune.
So how do you know if you’re overindulging your child other than by, say, listening to yourself talk and going over your bank statements? Bredehoft and his colleagues have come up with four questions parents should ask when they do something for a child: 1) Does what you’re doing hinder your child from learning age-appropriate tasks? 2) Does what you’re doing allocate a disproportionate amount of family resources—time, money, energy, or space—to one or more of your children? 3) Does what you’re doing benefit you more than it benefits your kid? (This one stems from the fact that parents often spoil kids to compensate for something else—guilt over working too much, for instance.) And 4) Does what you’re doing potentially harm others, society, or the planet in some way even though it may benefit your child?
If you answered “yes” to one or more of those questions, then you’re probably being overindulgent, Bredehoft says. Of course, a little overindulgence here or there isn’t going to turn your child into a monster; it’s repeated overindulgence that’s a problem. For sure, it can be hard to stop once you’ve started, but it’s important that you do. (For more advice, check out How to Unspoil Your Child Fast, by Harvard-affiliated psychotherapist Richard Bromfield.)
So not overindulging your kids may be an indirect way to make them feel more grateful. But to raise truly thankful kids, you will have to do more. First, start by becoming a model of gratitude yourself. “If we’re not behaving in ways that grateful people behave, such as being generous and compassionate to our partners, kids, and neighbors, how can we expect our kids to?” Froh asks. If your son puts his dirty dishes in the dishwasher after dinner, thank him, even if putting dishes in the dishwasher is a house rule. Thank your husband for pouring your coffee and your UPS delivery person for every package while you’re at it—your kids will hear you and, probably, emulate you.
It may also help to talk your children through what is involved when someone does something nice for them. Research suggests that kids are more likely to develop a healthy conscience when parents repeatedly explain to them how their actions impact others; likewise, your kid may feel more thankful for his birthday present from grandma if you explain to him that she had to think about what he really wanted, go to the store, stand in line, pay for it, wrap it, and ship it. “If someone does something kind for you, and you’re a grateful person, you tend to recognize the intent behind the act. ‘You did this on purpose, went out of your way, took my needs into consideration and tailored this to me,’ ” Froh explains. “Kids aren’t going to get that on their own, so you have to walk them through it. Over time, they will start to do this naturally.”
And if your child seems a little too “me, me, me,” prompt him to think about others’ needs by discussing them openly. “Say, ‘But Johnny, I have to get to work too, and if I spend 10 minutes helping you figure out what you’re going to wear today, I won’t have time to eat breakfast,’ ” Thompson says. “Rather than saying, ‘No, I can’t help you now,’ or accusing the child of being selfish, you’re presenting it as a dilemma and leaving it at the child’s feet, which requires the child to struggle conceptually with what you want them to struggle with conceptually—how do I think about my needs in relation to others?” (This doesn’t mean, though, that you have to do what he decides; if his response is Then I guess you’re not getting any breakfast, go back and explain why this solution is unacceptable for you.)
Gratitude also has a lot to do with context—with “the recognition that things could be otherwise, and that they are otherwise for many, many people,” Dweck says. If your life is surrounded by comfort, create this context by talking about how other families live around the globe and by regularly involving your family in charity. Maybe, every year around the holidays, you put together a gift basket for a less fortunate family, or perhaps you volunteer at a soup kitchen once a month. The important thing is to involve your children in the process—they should help pick out the gifts, for instance, and help make the sandwiches.
Finally, always set the expectation of gratitude in your home, Bredehoft says. Expect your kids to say please and thank you, and make them write thoughtful thank-you notes (not just, “Thanks for the umbrella, it’s awesome,” but, “Thanks for the umbrella—finally I have something that will keep me dry when I walk home from school, and you even thought to pick my favorite color!,” which forces your kids to recognize the value of and thoughtfulness behind the gift). If your kids are too young to write, have them draw thank-you pictures instead. And always teach your kids to take care of their belongings. “If they damage something out of carelessness, don’t buy them another one—that’s it,” Bredehoft says. Or give them the option of earning enough money, via chores, to buy the replacement.
If raising your kids to be grateful sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is: It may mean changing your own behavior for the rest of your parenting life. But I know that’s what you want, because ultimately, overindulgence is really just good intentions gone awry—and by having those good intentions, you’ve gone a long way toward building a foundation of big-heartedness in your kids. “When children in those first couple of years of life are in a loving relationship where their needs are responded to, and they’re taken care of, and they trust that they’re going to be cared for, that leads down the line to generosity,” Klein says. Your kids may never be grateful toward you (sorry), but believe it or not, your (over)caring ways have given them the capacity to be thoughtful to others. When you go around the table tomorrow, consider it a chance to start fresh in the thanks-department, and then keep working on it all year—and, you know, forever.