Gratitude or Overindulgence?

Every person’s heart contains a “gratefulness button.” Seven-year-old Joshua beams when Mom holds out a plate of cookies and says, “I made your favorite.” Mom found the button. Seventeen-year-old Sandra is pleasantly surprised that Mom washed the jeans she wants to wear to the party. Her eyes get big with delight, and Mom knows she’s touched her daughter’s heart. You feel grateful when your son surprises you by cleaning up the kitchen without being asked, and you give him a big thank-you hug. Gratitude increases closeness. It’s useful in parent-child relationships but is also important in marriage, the workplace, and with friends.

Look for opportunities to take advantage of gratefulness as you work to draw closer to your kids. Give your children small gifts of love day after day. Be careful, though, that you don’t confuse the gratefulness principle with the overindulgence trap. Some parents, wanting their children to like them, recognize giving gifts opens the heart, so they overdo it by giving them too many things. Giving to your kids must be tied into relationship, or the gifts feed selfishness instead of gratefulness.

A Mom with a Problem

“My kids aren’t grateful. They’re demanding, self-centered, and treat me like dirt,” said Donna, who sat in our office, frustrated. Her children were twelve, nine, and seven. “My kids only think about themselves and what they want. They expect me to give and give, and they don’t appreciate the things I do for them already.”

We knew we had some work to do to help this mom before she’d be willing to begin a plan of emotional connectedness. Together we made a list of many of the things she did for her kids. She drove them places, bought them clothes and toys, paid for lessons and classes, attended their activities, met with teachers – and that didn’t even count the washing, cooking, cleaning, and repairing required to keep everything running. Donna obviously sacrificed for her children, and she did it willingly with a good attitude. That’s why their ungrateful and demanding attitude hurt so much.

“But I’m not spoiling them!”

When we began discussing the idea of overindulgence, Donna defended herself. “I don’t give my kids half of what others in the neighborhood give their kids.” That might have been true, but we helped this mom understand overindulgence isn’t something you can compare to other families.  Overindulgence is simply giving your children more than their character can handle. In fact, when children lack gratitude, the more you give them, the less they appreciate.

Although parents love their children and want to give to them, they must restrain themselves or they’ll exceed their children’s ability to manage the blessings.

Overindulged children rarely become grateful when you give them more things; they grow to be more spoiled, demanding, and selfish. Parents then feel unappreciated and become resentful. The hearts of both parents and children harden toward each other, and closeness becomes a thing of the past.

The Solution

When Donna finally arrived in our office, we saw some pretty serious heart issues that had grown over the years in both the kids and their mom.

The solution was to begin with the heart, and emotional connectedness was the window. Donna had already started setting limits in several areas. She learned to make her children wait for things and not always give in to them. Then she began to make small gestures of love to open her children’s hearts, looking for signs of appreciation as she went. She gave compliments, encouragement, hugs, and other relational gifts.

“It worked!”

Slowly but surely she saw changes in her kids. One at a time, these children became more cooperative, helpful, and supportive. After three months of concentrated work on her kids’ hearts, Donna told this story: “I can’t believe the difference I’m seeing in my children. A couple of months ago, it seemed like our family was falling apart, but now things are much more pleasant. We just got back from a family vacation that went better than I expected. The long drive in the car was peaceful. A few months ago, I dreaded driving even across town. This was a major change in our family.”

When your children become overindulged rather than grateful, pull back on the area where you’re giving too much and look for ways to increase the areas where you’re lacking. Parents rarely overindulge their children in all areas. They usually show love in one favorite way until it’s overused and they need to find a different way to use the gratefulness button.

Other “Problem” Children

Taylor, for example, gets too many toys and doesn’t appreciate them. He may need more parental time and fewer toys. On the other hand, Cara get lots of “Mommy time.” She has become demanding, always needing Mommy to play with her and expecting Mommy to drop everything whenever she calls. Mom may need to set some limits on her instant availability and look for other ways to spark Cara’s gratitude.

One dad told us he and his wife had given fourteen-year-old Gracie a cell phone, a computer, a late curfew, lots of clothes, and freedom to choose many of her own activities. We helped these parents see Gracie was making some unwise choices and becoming demanding. They reversed course, restricted much of her freedom, and limited her use of electronic toys and shopping.

Gracie was angry. She believed that these things were rights, not gifts. Over several months, Dad and Mom worked hard to continue relationships while pulling back on her privileges. They knew they were being tough on their daughter, so they looked for ways to love her. They greeted her more often, talked to her more about life, and occasionally gave her a gift. They looked for ways to replace tangible things with relational gifts of respect, conversation, and thoughtfulness to teach Gracie about gratefulness.

Teaching Gratefulness

Teaching the heart gratefulness can be a challenge. Having a child say thank you is just behavior. Gratefulness comes from the heart. Monitor your child’s response to gifts of love to determine if you’re growing gratitude or overindulgence. As gratefulness increases, you can slowly give blessings in a way that will produce more gratefulness. You’ll know if you’re moving too quickly by your child’s response.

If you see selfishness growing, pull back for a while and focus on more work and responsibility. If the child demonstrates appreciation for your gifts and acts of kindness, move forward. If not, continue to cut back. Some children need years of living on less to appreciate the things they have and the people who helped them get them.