- - Sunday, September 4, 2011

Culture challenge of the week: Childish Ingratitude

A judge in Illinois recently threw out a lawsuit filed by two adult children against their mother. In court, the brother and sister accused their mother of “bad mothering” and claimed damages for emotional distress. What amounts to “bad mothering”? The mother’s choice of a perfunctory birthday card for her son, the spending limits she imposed on her teenage daughter and similar nonsense.

The ludicrous accusations in this case became the butt of jokes among parents across the country. Many parents surely felt outrage, too, wondering, “What kind of ungrateful child grows up and sues his or her mother?”

The case as a whole hints at a real source of pain for many parents: childish ingratitude for parents’ hard work, sacrifices and tough decisions, all done for the child’s own good.

It’s a new school year. Parents should expect a steady stream of situations that will test their patience for childish ingratitude. For the childrens, it’s a new year, new grade, new friends - and new privileges, they hope. They may resent or rebel against the responsible decisions parents make for their benefit. A mom’s refusal to buy expensive electronics that “everybody” has may trigger wails of complaint. And a dad’s “no” to unwise teenage plans may generate selective amnesia - protests that he absolutely never lets them do anything.

Other times, children may fail to recognize the indispensable support they’ve received from their parents and others. A parent’s extra hours at work may pay for guitar lessons or travel - and go unappreciated. The miles of driving and hours of parental time that afford children success in everything from basketball to school may be taken for granted.

Over time, a child’s ingratitude in the face of parents’ tough sacrifices or unacknowledged effort can make even the best parents feel disappointed, angry and resentful.

It’s no fun.

It doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a parent. (Nor does it foreshadow a lawsuit against you for not buying your kids iPhones!)

How to save your family with perspective and patience

Keep perspective.

Childish ingratitude is an expected rough patch in the normal terrain of child-rearing. Persistent childish ingratitude, however, is a call to action.

On the one hand, experts think adolescents struggle with ingratitude in tandem with their developmental need to separate from parents and become independent. Teens have not acquired the maturity and wisdom to know their limitations and acknowledge gratefully the help of others. Hindsight and maturity come later. So will heartfelt gratitude.

In the meantime, parents may need to steel themselves for the hard decisions ahead, especially those decisions likely to prompt ungrateful protests. Don’t expect a child to fully appreciate the wisdom behind your unpopular decisions for years to come.

On the other hand, parents must insist on right behavior - including appropriate expressions of gratitude - at every stage of development. When children practice gratitude from an early age, that practice will become second nature and motivate consistently courteous behavior.

Children must express thanks when it is due, even when they don’t feel particularly grateful. For example, a grandparent deserves to be thanked graciously whether or not the child actually feels grateful for a particular gift. (Note to grandparents: Teenage boys generally don’t feel grateful for handkerchiefs.)

Intentional gratitude fosters a more grateful outlook. Research indicates that discouraged teens - those most pessimistic about life’s prospects - feel more content and grateful if they take part in “ritualized gratitude” - specific daily exercises listing people, things and events for which they are thankful. If your child struggles with new subjects or classmates, build hope in his heart: Each day, write down the good things that happened. Help your child see the gifts within each day.

Finally, parents must model gratitude and humility in their own lives. Children learn what they live, so make family time to offer heartfelt thanks, in prayer and conversation, for the blessings of today.

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at rebecca@howtosave yourfamily.com.

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