Instilling an Attitude of Gratitude in Children

A Goal

Most parents want to raise children who appreciate what they have, show responsibility, have a healthy perspective on material possessions, are generous, and think about the needs of others.  

Nowadays, bringing up children who feel grateful for – rather than entitled to – what they have is a challenge.

As you strive toward that goal, keep in mind that each parent decides for his family how much is too much and what is enough. What you consider “right” depends on your personal values and what you want to teach your children about “things,” being responsible, and giving and receiving.

In this article, you will learn:


What is Over-Indulgence?

Over-indulgence is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon.  It exists on a continuum from one extreme to another:

  • from a child who is self-sacrificing, humble, and grateful for whatever he has
  • to one who is demanding, feels entitled, and lacks appreciation.

Children who grow up to be “spoiled” often don’t develop social skills that help them get along well in the world. Believing they deserve special treatment and that everyday rules do not apply to them, they can be annoyingly demanding, irresponsible, and untrustworthy.

Without the skills to cope with life’s challenges, they are easily frustrated and lash out. In general, they do not have a generosity of spirit. It is understandable that you want to raise your children so they do not develop these traits and behaviors.

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How Parents Over-Indulge their Children

Research by Jean Illsley Clarke has found that there are three ways that parents can over-indulge their children:

  1. Giving too much – time, money, material possessions

  2. Over-caring – doing things for them that the children could and should be doing themselves

  3. Lax discipline – not holding the children accountable for their behaviors


1. Giving Too Much – time, money, material possessions

Most people think of giving too many material items when considering the topic of over-indulgence.

However, another form of “giving too much” is allowing your children to participate in too many activities, especially when the responsibilities for fulfilling the obligation become a burden to you or if your children do not hold up their end of the bargain.

By giving your children too much without the expectation that they will fulfill their household responsibilities or show appreciation in some way, you set the stage for your children to feel entitled to whatever they get.


Examples of Giving Too Much

pile of presents

A five-year-old boy has an iPad and gets new apps as they are released. He doesn’t play his old games and doesn’t say thank you for the new ones.

Parents give their eleven-year-old son a new bike every year, although he does not take good care of it.

A seven-year-old requests and her parents sign her up for numerous activities each day after school, even though it puts a strain on family finances and scheduling.

A thirteen-year-old girl takes private violin lessons, but doesn’t have time to practice because she also takes art lessons and is on the travel soccer team.  Sometimes she misses the soccer practices on Friday nights because she wants to go out with her friends.


The Concept of “Enough”

The ability to know what is enough is one of the most important skills you can teach your children because it is through the understanding of this concept that children learn moderation and self-control. 

“Enough” is an elusive concept that is best taught slowly over many years by adults who say “You’ve had enough,” whether it is candy, gifts, excitement, recreation, or stimulation. 

You teach about enough informally a bit at a time as the situation arises:

“Time for a nap. You have been up long enough.”

“You and I are going into a quiet room to sit for awhile. You have had enough excitement for now.”

You’ve already had enough cookies.  I will cut up an apple for you.” 

“After we get your jacket and jeans, we will see if there is enough money left for the sneakers you want.” 

“Come for a walk with me.  I haven’t seen enough of you lately.”


The Concept of Needs vs. Wants 

Children don’t automatically know the difference between the things they truly need and those things they would like but can certainly survive without.  They are not born with the knowledge or judgment to calibrate their needs.

They experience all needs (and also what you might consider “wants”) with the same degree of intensity. It is up to you to teach them the difference.

For example:

Your two-year-old may desperately want a cookie. You can allow him to wait for it, knowing that he just had his lunch one hour ago. 

Or your teen may desperately want a particular pair of designer jeans. You can deny the request or help him figure out a way that he can buy them with his own money, knowing that he has four other pairs of jeans in his closet that are in reasonably good condition.

You may feel pressure to satisfy all your children’s requests.

    Needs Change over Time

    Certainly with infants and babies, it is your job to satisfy their demands – it is a “developmental task” of babies to learn that their needs are important and that you care enough to keep them safe, healthy, and comfortable.

    But as your children grow, if you were to satisfy every request they make, you would be doing them a disservice.  You would not be teaching them to prioritize their needs or to differentiate between what they truly need and what they would like to have but can live without.


    Frustration is a Gift

    According to Jean Illsley Clarke, “Putting a child’s needs ahead of her wants is the greatest gift parents can give.” Every child deserves to be told “no” at times so he can learn moderation and how to deal with frustration.

    Denying a snack for a four-year-old just before dinner time is a good example of having to deal with frustration.

    As is a teen not being allowed to drive with friends in his car when you don’t think he has the judgment and skill to handle distractions. 

    There are times when children need to not get their wants met in order to grow up physically and emotionally healthy.


Life Teaches Lessons

Happily for you, you don’t always have to be the “bad guy” by imposing artificial frustrations on your children; normal life imposes delays and frustrations enough, and you can use these as opportunities to help your children learn to deal with them.

For example, your child may:

  • not want to wait in line to buy an ice cream cone.
  • may want the gifts that were given to a friend celebrating a birthday.
  • may want you to take her to the movies when her friend gets sick and plans are cancelled.

You can empathize with their frustration while also teaching them some of the things they need to know to get on in the world: to delay gratification, to be patient, to feel happy when good things happen to a friend,  and to handle disappointments.


2. Over-Caring – doing what your children could and should do themselves

This is actually the most common type of over-indulgence, although it is not what most people think of. Studies have shown that adults who look back at their childhoods and feel that they were over-indulged mention this form of over-indulgence most often.

It does not occur because parents buy too many things for their children.

Over-Caring results from your not requiring your kids to be contributing members of the family and not encouraging them to learn life or self-care skills.

When you raise your children to expect that other people will take care of them and pick up after them, they do not learn how to care for themselves and or feel capable of doing so. Done for children in the name of love, this is a disservice which can result in a sense of debilitating inadequacy.


Examples of Over-Caring

girl sweeping

The mother of a six-year-old hangs up his coat for him even though he can reach the hook himself.

Nine-year-old Sally’s father organizes all of her school work each night so she does not have to spend time doing it.

Thirteen-year-old Brian never makes his own social arrangements; his mother does that for him.

The father of a four-year-old still gets him water from the refrigerator even though the child has a very steady hand and is capable of pouring the water himself.

Ten-year-old Matthew is supposed to take out the trash, but when it is cold out, his father does it for him.


Not all Caring is Over-Caring

At times, you may want to do things for your children as a loving gesture, even if they are capable of doing those things themselves. 

You may want to make hot chocolate on a cold winter day when your teen gets home from school.

After dinner, you may choose to clear the table for your daughter knowing she has a big report due the next day.

You may help your child clean up his toys if he is especially tired at the end of the day. 

But when it becomes a pattern or a burden to you or undermines of your child’s sense of competency, then it becomes over-indulgence.


3. Lax Discipline

Another form of over-indulgence occurs when you do not expect enough of your children in terms of responsibility for their actions.

When you do not set rules and establish consequences, your children do not have the opportunity to face the results of their behaviors. 

Knowing you will not hold them accountable for what they do, your children could learn that they do not have to:

  • be honest with themselves or others,
  • live up to standards,
  • or keep their word. 

Your lack of follow-through teaches them that they can “get away with things” and the rules do not apply to them.


Examples of Lax Discipline

A mother of a fifteen-year-old goes to school to get her child out of trouble when she is caught cheating on a test.

A mother calls her twelve-year-old’s teacher to give excuses for why he has forgotten his homework for the 7th time this marking period.

When five-year-old Sarah refuses to clean up her toys, even though the rule is that she is supposed to, her mother does not insist or impose any consequence.

Eight-year-old Will does not have to apologize for breaking the neighbor’s window when he was playing ball with his friends.


Being Spoiled is an Attitude

Being spoiled does not necessarily result when a child has too many material possessions; you can actually spoil your children without spending any money on them.

Attitudes and actions of a spoiled child include:

    angry girl

  • not helping out,

  • not chipping in,

  • not taking responsibility for their behavior,

  • not being grateful for what they have,

  • expecting and demanding that others do things for them that they could do for themselves,

  • not being honest about what they have done,

  • feeling entitled to privileges that others do not have,

  • expecting to get their way,

  • and not feeling a need to be true to their word.

Unless you teach them otherwise, it is easy for children to continue to think of themselves as the center of the universe, special, privileged beings whose every whim should be immediately satisfied, and yet who never feel like they have enough.


Why Parents Over-Indulge their Children

Even though you are doing the very best you can to raise your children to be grateful and to take responsibility for themselves and their actions, there are a lot of factors that might lead you to over-indulge them, often without your awareness.

  • Parents who spend a lot of time away from home for their job may feel guilty and be reluctant to discipline their children during the little time they have with them.

  • Parents who are concerned that their children “like” them may not want to be the source of any frustration by saying “no.”

  • Parents who are competitive with friends or neighbors may feel a need for their children to have the newest and best of the latest “in” thing.

  • Parents who are averse to conflict may back away from establishing and enforcing rules.

  • Parents who grew up in poverty and felt deprived may want their children to have all that they did not have.

  • Divorced parents may want to show how much they love their children, and thereby “win” the competition with their ex-spouses.

Over-indulging may be motivated by a desire to compensate for an absent or abusive co-parent. It may be that parents do not have the skills to set limits. Parents may not set limits because not doing so is the path of least resistance, at least in the short term. Or parents may feel sorry for a child with special needs.

Whatever the reasons, it is helpful to acknowledge the attitudes and motivations that might lead you to over-indulge your children. Once you do, then you can begin to make conscious changes that will result in teaching your children what they need to learn about gratitude, responsibility, and accountability so that they can thrive in the world.


Tips to Avoid The Three Ways of Over-Indulging

  • Teach your children the concept of enough by using the word in everyday situations.

  • Help your children to know the difference between their needs and wants.

  • Satisfy all their needs as best you can, and satisfy some of their wants, as fits your values.  Don’t give your children everything they want or ask for; set limits based on your values.

  • Give your children responsibilities in the home, appropriate to their ages, maturity, and ability.  Small chores can start when children are as young as three-years old.

  • Be consistent with rules and follow through with any consequences you set so that your children learn that they will be held accountable for their behavior.

  • Don’t “bail” your children out when they get into trouble or if they shirk responsibilities.  You can be a support to them while still helping them to face consequences.

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The Nature of Children Impacts Gratitude

It may surprise you to know that part of why children may seem unappreciative exists in the very nature of children and in the details of child development.  It might be a relief to know that you are not fully responsible through your parenting decisions for your children’s behavior. Rather, typical child development plays a role in explaining your children’s behavior as it relates to gratitude and responsibility.



The first concept is understanding that normal, healthy children L-I-E- not in the sense of not telling the truth, but rather that they are born:

acking in judgment

I  mpulsive

E gocentric


It is up to you to gradually help your children improve their judgment, curb their impulses, and become less egocentric.  As your children are learning this, their judgment can leave you baffled as they do not always think before they act and they do not think about the feelings and needs of others. 

In terms of over-indulgence, your children do not necessarily judge accurately the quality or cost of the things they want to buy. They seem to want what they want the moment they decide they want it and they do not take into account the needs of others in the family when they demand things.  You will see these behaviors most strongly in toddlers.

Typically you will see somewhat steady progression in maturity during the early school and middle school years, only to have L-I-E become significant again during the teen years.  It is over many years that they develop full maturity in these areas.


Unique Child

Certain factors in your children’s make-up can contribute to their appearing to look like “spoiled” children.  As with the L-I-E concept, this understanding can help you be more tolerant and patient if your children appear to be lacking in gratitude or overly acquisitional.  

The five parts of every Unique Child are:

  • Temperament
  • Maturity
  • Tasks
  • Ages and stages
  • Situational factors



tired grumpy boyThere are ten temperament traits that all people possess that determine how they interact with the world. Each of these inborn traits remains constant throughout life and exists on a continuum from very strong to very mild for each person. 

Although your children’s temperament cannot be changed, your job is to help them understand and accept their temperament while finding ways to accommodate to the demands of their world.

There are five traits that impact directly how much a child appears to be more demanding or less appreciative than other children:


    Very persistent children will continue to demand things that they want for a long time, even when they have been told ‘no’ repeatedly.  It is not easy to take their minds off what they see; they tend to get “locked in.”


    Naturally intense children will be very dramatic and loud in expressing their wants.


    Highly distractible children will notice everything and want things they see in advertisements in magazines, catalogues, television, on the internet, or in stores.

    Quality of Mood

    Some children are by nature more somber and serious; it may take more to make  them satisfied and they may not seem enthusiastic when they receive a gift. They may have to be taught to say thank you and how to say it.


    Children low in adaptability may struggle if they expect something and then don’t get it; change is difficult and surprises are not handled well.  You can forewarn your low adaptable children so they can prepare in advance for what may happen.

Your own temperament may also be a factor in how you view your children’s responses.

  • If you are mild, gentle, and low on the intensity scale, you may have a hard time saying no or setting limits with a spirited child whose behavior could seem offensive and perplexing.

  • If you are not highly persistent yourself, you may find yourself giving in too easily to the demands of your highly persistent child.



All children grow in maturity at different rates in the different areas listed below. Not only does the rate of growth vary from child to child, but also within each child.


    Emotional Maturity

    This includes the ability to delay gratification, tolerate frustration, and control impulses.  Babies and young children do not possess this emotional maturity, and therefore you may wonder if your youngsters are spoiled. 

    It is important to remember that this is a normal stage of development which your children will move beyond.

    By the time your children are about 14 months old, you can begin to slowly help them to tolerate some frustration by not responding immediately to every whimper or request.  By gradually giving them small opportunities to feel frustrated, they learn to tolerate frustration. 

    For example, if your three-year-old wants to go outside to play, you can ask him to wait a few minutes while you finish your work.


    Intellectual Maturity

    Children need a certain amount of awareness of the world before they can understand that not all advertisements are true and that not everything they see on television is real.  They may continue to beg for toys they see advertised even though you may know that the items are not as good as the commercials make them seem.

    Social Maturity

    Children need to have some social independence before they are able to stand on their own and not feel like they must have what everyone else has.


Developmental Tasks

In addition to having their own unique temperaments and maturing at their own rates, children at every age are working on accomplishing certain “developmental tasks” – those things that people need to do in order to advance the process of their growth

In terms of what may make children seem to lack a generosity of spirit, you can consider tasks associated with specific ages. This knowledge can help allay your concerns that your children will ever show appropriate gratitude.


    The job of toddlerhood is to develop their own identity. One of the ways they do this is by “owning” everything not nailed down. The battle cry of toddlers is “MINE!”  They define themselves by what they claim as their own. 

    As a result, toddlers are notorious for not sharing. Although this might be upsetting to you and may challenge your patience and your hopes that you will ever civilize your children, it is helpful to know this behavior is typical and an important developmental stage for your little ones to pass through.


    Elementary ages

    Many children in the elementary years are consumed with collections of various things.  They may gather, hoard, and seem obsessed with their particular collection.  Although these items may lack value in your eyes and your children may appear very materialistic, your six- to twelve-year-olds are actually learning and gaining a lot through this process that will be useful to them as they grow up.

    They experience the excitement of the hunt, pride of ownership, sense of identity, the thrill of trading and negotiating, raised status, and the comfort of organizing  

    For your children, these added skills nurture their self-esteem; soon enough they will move beyond the collections, having gained a new and stronger sense of themselves as well as valuable skills that they will utilize in other situations.


    Teenagers are typically lacking in judgment, impulsive and egocentric (Remember L–I–E?)

    Their major task is to separate from their parents and form their own identity.  Because this is a scary prospect to them, they use their peer group as a stepping stone to being truly independent. They are very concerned with fitting in with their social circles and receiving their approval. 

    Having certain things that “everyone else has” helps them feel like they belong. The motto of many teens could be “All the same please.” Whenever possible, allow them to make choices that satisfy this developmental need.

    For example, you can agree to their having the same haircut as their friends. 

    You still hold onto your values on the important issues.


Ages and stages

Children’s growth does not occur in a straight line from less mature to more mature.  Rather, children grow in fits and starts, taking major leaps forward at certain times only to appear to backslide at other times. 

  • During periods when they seem to be consolidating a new level of maturity, called equilibrium, children are calm, at ease, and confident.

  • During the periods of backsliding, called disequilibrium, usually when children are working on mastering a new skill, they feel less secure and confident, are tense and anxious, struggle more, and are at odds with themselves and with the world.

While in disequilibrium, children are more likely to be demanding, clingy, less able to tolerate frustration, and less easily satisfied.  It may be harder to engage their cooperation. They may be overly sensitive, moody, and lack self-confidence. 

Knowing this pattern can help you realize that your children are not establishing terrible behaviors that will last a lifetime, but rather this developmental process will eventually move them into an easier stage.


Situational factors

There are many factors that are external to your children that can cause anxiety or increased stress.  In these situations, they may become more demanding, needier, and less able to tolerate normal frustrations and responsibilities. 

At these times, your children can benefit from your understanding as you listen to their concerns.  Although you may have to set limits and uphold expectations, you can do so while offering support, kindness and compassion.

Some situational factors include:

  • the birth of a sibling,
  • a move to a new home or neighborhood,
  • a divorce,
  • an illness,
  • a death in the family,
  • a friend moving away,
  • or a pet dying.

The culture in which your children grow up is another situational factor that impacts their ability to develop a healthy perspective on material possessions and a sense of gratitude and responsibility.  It can feel that you are swimming upstream when you try to curb your children’s appetites for the newest and the latest . . . 

Here are some of the ways society impacts your children and your ability to instill accountability and a sense of satisfaction:


    A sophisticated marketing and advertising industry targets your kids earlier and earlier, and encourages them to feel that they must have . . .  or their life will be incomplete.


    We live in an affluent society and materialism is all around us.   It often feels like our society is focused on and reinforces achievement, success, and material wealth in place of the development of character strength and personal responsibility.


    Technoogy provides instant gratification and trains children to expect that in all parts of their lives. They don’t learn to delay gratification or to accept some frustration, and they want the latest upgrade/gadget that they see advertised and that their peers have.


    Children are exposed to many messages through the media that you can’t control; it is as if you live in houses without walls. Children grow up fast, come to expect easy solutions, and are exposed to extreme materialism where hard work and long-range planning is not depicted.


Tips for Managing the Nature of Children

  • Learn about child development, and consider all the aspects of the Unique Child.  Apply this information to the understanding of your own particular children so that you can respond to them with the necessary limits in a compassionate and kind way.

  • Remember that you are the best expert about your own children, what type of person you want them to become, and what values you want them to have.

  • Teach your children to be smart consumers and critical thinkers when it comes to advertising and media.

  • Limit/monitor what they watch on television, the video games they play, the movies they go to, and all the other electronic communication mediums they utilize.

  • Maintain a positive relationship and close connection with your children that will enable you to influence their values.

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Tips to Teach Gratitude

Avoiding Over-indulgence Pitfalls

Parenting PendulumResearch has found that there are three general parenting approaches that determine the kind of discipline used and the emotional climate established in your home.

Each of these will have a different result in terms of the choices you make about over-indulgence. 

You can think about these three styles as existing on a continuum from very permissive to very strict.


Permissive Parents

Permissive Parents give in to their children’s demands, do not demand respect, fear upsetting their children, and do not require accountability.  Because these parents care more about being liked by their children than about what their children really need to thrive, they do not say “no” or set appropriate limits.

Their kids rule the roost and do not learn the skills of everyday living or take responsibility for themselves. They expect that things will be taken care of for them and have a sense of entitlement rather than appreciation.


Aggressive Parents

Aggressive Parents argue and fight with their children, are overly strict, use harsh punishment, use teasing and humiliation as discipline tools, and have a litany of rules and regulations that the children must follow. Because parents dole out love and acceptance in small doses, there is a sense of scarcity in the home. 

Children raised in these families feel there is never enough and they hoard whatever they do have.  They often are not respectful because their parents do not treat them with respect.  They may not be empathic or kind, again because they do not receive empathy or kindness in their homes and these behaviors are not modeled for them.

Because there are so many rules and regulations, these children do not take responsibility on their own initiative; they do only what they are told to do and if they can get away with not doing something, they don’t do it.


Assertive Parents

Assertive Parents are in the middle between the other two styles. These parents demand respect and treat their children with respect, and are confident in their need to impose limits. They listen to their children’s wants but do not feel compelled to comply.  They are kind and loving while still being firm, are clear about their expectations and know their own values.  

Because Assertive Parents understand that children need discipline, rules are clear and consequences are imposed when rules are broken.  These parents also understand that love for their children needs to be unconditional, non-competitive, and abundant.

This third style is most likely to produce children who have a generosity of spirit and an attitude of gratitude for what they have. They don’t feel entitled or take things for granted.

They grow up to be responsible, caring, giving individuals who feel grateful for what they have and are willing to give back and share with others.  Because they are held accountable for their actions, they learn to be trustworthy and true to their word. These attitudes, behaviors, and traits have been modeled for them and taught to them.


Examples of the Three Styles

Here is an example of how these three different types of parents could respond to the same situation: Ten-year-old Ari leaves his games, books and clothes all over the family room even after being asked numerous times to pick up after himself.

  • Permissive Parent:  “Oh, Honey, I see your stuff is still left out.  I guess you were too busy to clean up.  I’ll clean-up for you so you can find everything next time you want to play with them.” 

  • Aggressive Parent:  “I’m sick and tired of seeing your things all over the room.  Why are you  such an irresponsible slob?  That’s it for you – you are grounded for a week and I’m throwing out all your things.”

  • Assertive Parent:  “Ari, I see your games are still not put away as I asked you to do.  It is really bothering me that I can’t count on you to take care of your things and I can’t stand seeing the family room be such a mess.  We need to come up with a plan for you to put your things away.  Until we can agree upon a plan, there are no electronics for you.”


Gratitude Building Steps

  • Recognize your own needs and get them met directly, not through your children.  In this way, you are less likely to over-indulge them because you feel deprived or are too dependent upon them for acceptance and love.

  • Be aware of the kind of role model you are for your children, in terms of feeling gratitude for what you have, having a charitable spirit, and meeting your obligations.

  • Know what your values are about giving and receiving.

  • Teach your children the concept of “enough.”  Together you can make up a list of all the things they have enough of, and all the many special riches your family has.

  • Be aware of your parenting style.  Work on being comfortable setting limits: establish rules and impose and follow through with consequences. 

    Remember that your children do not have to like the limits you set in order to follow them.

    At the same time, remember you need to balance discipline with lots of love, caring, and understanding.

  • Do not do for your children what they can clearly do for themselves. Encourage independence and a sense of capability and responsibility.  This leads to children who have high self-esteem and are willing to give to others.

  • Hold your children accountable for their behavior.  Do not “over-protect” your children by rescuing them from their responsibilities or by making excuses for them. 

    Impose your own consequences at home and help them face the outside consequences of their behavior by being a support.   Help them learn from their mistakes rather than bailing them out of trouble.

  • As your children mature and you give them increased privileges and freedoms. Be sure to pair those with increased responsibilities.

  • Listen to your children’s wants and teach them to distinguish between wants and needs. Be confident in your judgment about whether to meet the requests/demands they make.

  • Help your children to become educated and critical consumers of the media.  Discuss TV programs and advertisements with them.

  • Give your children the opportunity to contribute to the family through regular chores.  They will acquire skills to become independent and will learn the importance of contributing to their world.

  • Spend time with your children more often than you spend money on them.  Children will remember outings you took with them or talks you had with them far longer than they will remember the latest technology gadget that you bought for them.

  • Encourage your children to engage in activities that they enjoy in which they can gain a sense of accomplishment.  Losing themselves in the thrill of mastery is one of the most powerful ways to counter our culture of consumerism and increase children’s self-esteem and feelings of being capable.

  • Give your children opportunities and encourage them to give their time or money to charity.


A Parting Thought

Remember:  Your job is not to raise a “happy” child but one who becomes a caring, responsible, respectful, and independent person who feels and expresses gratitude for what he has.

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For more information about overindulgence, check out the following books. Purchasing from through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

Our favorites:

How Much is Enough by Jean Illsley Clarke Too Much of a Good Thing By Dan Kindlon The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine   

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