“My kids just don’t appreciate a thing I do for them,” a mother in my office lamented a few weeks ago. Every mother knows her frustration. We work tirelessly for our children—especially at the holidays—and when they are over, we feel, well, empty.
Was all of our work worth it? We wonder. Many times we assuage our sadness with the rationalization that our kids are just kids. We tell ourselves that no child appreciates his mother or father because he is self-centered and psychologically immature. Both of these are true, but I think that we miss something very important when we give our kids an easy pass. The truth is, most of our kids have more stuff than they need—luxuries that we work hard to give them. Many of our kids feel that our job is to provide, and their job is to enjoy.
The truth is kids are egocentric and cognitively they do have difficulty identifying with the amount of work we do for them. They can only partly empathize because doing so takes a hefty dose of abstract thinking, and many kids don’t have much until they are well into their teens. But that is only half of an excuse. Still, we owe it to our kids to teach them to try to empathize and consider the feelings of others, especially ours. Believe it or not, we can be successful at this.
The best time to start teaching kids to think beyond their own feelings is right from the start. We tell two-year-olds not to bite because it hurts. We tell kindergartners that when they are mad they can’t hit because hurting another is socially unacceptable. So even if a child can’t put himself in another’s shoes, we still teach him common courtesy.
As they mature, we teach them not to bully friends and to say thank you when they receive a birthday gift. When Grandma makes them a scarf at Christmas, even though they may think it is hideous, we coach them how to spare Grandma’s feelings. After all, the point of the gift isn’t what the gift is; rather the meaning stems from the fact that the giver wanted to extend love and kindness.
Why then, do we allow our kids to treat us parents so differently? Do we not deserve a thank you for getting up early to stuff the bird and put it in the oven so everyone can eat at 1 p.m.? Are the efforts we put forth to prepare a nice holiday to be discarded and ignored? Nope.
Good parents show kids what hard work is and then invite them to participate in the work in order to accomplish a few things.
First, having our kids cook with us, save money to buy gifts for the family, or clean the house for guests’ gives kids a glimpse into the amount of work that we do for them. We must teach them to work for others because we do.
Second, participating in the work of the holidays encourages kids to serve. Getting their minds off of what they want and putting forth effort to make life nicer for someone else at the holidays helps kids be less self-centered and more other-centered.
I have a few suggestions for parents who want to raise kids who are a bit more appreciative:
Don’t be so quick to give them a pass for overlooking your efforts. Doing this only fosters more self-centeredness.
Regardless of their age, insist on a “thank you” when you work hard. You would insist they do so for another family member, so teach them to be kind to you as well.
Find opportunities where the kids can work alongside you to help others. Nothing builds kindness in kids as well as serving others. So get them some work to do and I promise, their appreciation of your efforts will skyrocket.
Dr. Meeker is a pediatrician, who has practiced pediatric and adolescent medicine for 25 years. She is the author of six books including the best-selling Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: Ten Secrets Every Father Should Know; Boys Should Be Boys; Your Kids At Risk;, The 10 Habits of Happy Mothers: Reclaiming Our Passion, Purpose and Sanity; Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: The 30 Day Challenge and Strong Mothers, Strong Sons: Lessons Mothers Need to Raise Extraordinary Men, (Ballantine) April 2014. She is a popular speaker on pediatric health issues and child-parent relationships.
Dr. Meeker is co-host and physician in- residence of Dr. James Dobson’s Family Talk Radio. She is also Assistant Clinical Professor at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and currently teaches medical students and physicians in residency training. She is board certified with the American Board of Pediatrics and is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Meeker serves on the National Advisory Board of the Medical Institute. She has been married to her husband, Walter for 32 years. They have shared a medical practice for over 20 years. They have three grown daughters and a grown son. She lives in northern Michigan.