Q: We have a 6-year-old who, for the past six months or so, has acted frustrated and apathetic about most things if she’s not doing exactly what she wants. We are not extravagant, but we live a comfortable life and want to do fun things with the kids. But it’s hard when we feel like it’s not being appreciated. We’ve tried talking to her about this and taking her volunteering to show her that not everyone has life so easy, but it’s not making a difference. Thank you for any suggestions about how to get things back on track with her.
A: Something that jumped out to me was your statement that you like to do fun things with your kids but that it’s not being appreciated. And I understand this. When you take the time (and, often, money) to go on a nice outing with your kids, it feels like a punch to the gut when they don’t appreciate it. The more we expect our children to be grateful, the more demanding they become. It’s pretty demoralizing.
Let’s zoom out and take another look at this.
I am 41 and was brought up by parents who cared how I felt, but let’s face it, my brother’s and my feelings didn’t dictate the family interactions and outings. My father loves to look at churches of all types (the more historical, the better), and we spent many weekends driving around in search of a church that “someone had told” my dad about. My brother and I sat in the back seat, no technology, listening to whatever music my mother liked, and we waited.
No one asked us whether we liked this. No one asked whether we wanted to learn about flying buttresses or naves. We knew that we were along for the ride and that our happiness was not paramount. Were we bored? Of course. But my adult brother and I love a good church today. Something about those outings worked.
So, past generations of parents: pretty unconcerned with making their children happy. Parents now? Often consumed with it.
Whether it’s outings, parties or vacations, our parenting lives have become completely child-focused. The minutiae of weekends have been designed around making our children happy, and it’s a mess.
True gratitude can take years to develop. It requires deep empathy and an appreciation of others’ feelings. Simply put, I cannot appreciate my own life if I cannot understand and have compassion for yours.
How reasonable is it to expect a 6-year-old to appreciate her life? To be grateful for your sacrifice? To care about your viewpoint more than her own? Pretty unreasonable.
A 6-year-old is particularly interesting because some are very sensitive to their surroundings and how others are feeling. It doesn’t necessarily make them grateful, but it does help them be more attuned to others.
Other 6-year-olds can seem like a black hole into which you pour all your attention, hopes and dreams to no avail. They are not happy and not grateful. Why does this happen? Is your child intrinsically selfish? No, not really. She is a child, so she is naturally self-oriented, but in essence, you are giving her too much of what she doesn’t need.
What she needs is for you to stop trying to make her happy. Stop planning too many events for her. Stop taking her bad attitude personally. And above all, stop talking to her about being grateful. Why? First, if we look at the evidence, we know that it doesn’t work. (Trust me, if lectures worked, my kids would be perfect by now.) Second, humans are funny in that the more we try to please them, the more it elicits bad behavior. When we try to make our kids happy, we end up becoming needy. The kids control our moods, our plans, our parenting and our confidence.
It is paradoxical, but by taking back the planning and letting go of how grateful your daughter appears, you regain the power you are giving away. She feels your confidence and will begin to relax in that she is no longer in charge of everyone’s feelings. Trust me, there will be major fits thrown as you hold the boundary of keeping your own agenda; your daughter will not like this at all, but over time, she will relax. And you have to give this time.
Finally, find ways to connect with your daughter. Begin with having strong eye contact and just listening to her, without much comment or critique. Read together, walk together, do a puzzle, dance — anything that promotes physical proximity without lots of talking or teaching. The closeness and eye contact send a strong message that she matters to you, and the listening without commentary helps lessen the chronic power struggle you’ve found yourself in.