Why Children Are So Ungrateful

Mrs Harris called her son Steven in from the garden. “Look Steven!” she said, “Your Uncle George has brought you a present. Isn’t that nice of him?”

With slow ceremony, and a pleasant smile, George produced a beautifully wrapped present from behind his back. As soon as he saw it, Steven jumped up in excited impatience. Even before the ceremony was over, Steven had snatched the present from his uncle’s hand and without a glance at the lovely gold wrapping, started to rip open the present. Still ripping away, he ran back out into the garden.

Mrs Harris was very embarrassed, and regarded the smile which had frozen on George’s face. “Steven!” she yelled through the French windows, “Come back here at once!”

Soon, Steven appeared back in the room, clutching his new toy, and looking in innocent confusion at his mother. “What?” he said.

Mrs Harris heaved an exasperated sigh. She had lectured Steven on gratitude countless times. “What do you say to your uncle?”

Steven’s face was blank for a moment. Then he turned to George and said mechanically “Hello Uncle George.”

Mrs Harris was getting angry now. “George has come a long way to see us, and he very kindly thought to bring you a lovely present. Now aren’t you going to thank him?”

“Oh,” said Steven, realising why he had been called back. “Thanks.” He raced off back into the sunshine.

“No, say it like you mean it!” Mrs Harris shouted to her escaping son. It was a futile gesture. She turned to George and said, “I’m very sorry about that. I’m sure he’ll love whatever it was. It looked just the sort of thing he likes.”

George gave her a reassuring smile. “That’s okay, I remember what I was like at that age.”

Why are kids so outrageously bad at gratitude? While it is true that some children can respond by some degree to diligent upbringing, and can on occasion manage something close to gratitude, most children seem innately predisposed to a level of ingratitude that borders on the infuriating. Between the ages of about four and twelve, children are near impossible to train to say thank you as though they mean it, when given a gift. When they get into their teens, their gratitude to their parents usually manifests as seething resentment, a desire to be socially disassociated from their parents, and a reminder to their parents that they never asked to be born.

In the early years, before a child can speak, he is totally dependent on adults to care for him. He demands food by crying, yelling and screaming, and he demands his every other need attended to by similar methods. The usual reward for attending to these needs is that the screaming stops. Gratitude as this age one would not expect to find. Later on, however, one might expect children to develop excellent skills at gratitude, for several reasons.

Between the ages of four and ten (very roughly), a child is still largely dependent on adults to survive and thrive. In these years, he will depend steadily less on his own parents, and will interact more and more with people from other families. In these formative years, an ability to win people over will be a great asset. Gifts from uncles and aunts may be forthcoming, and popularity amongst his peers could set him up well for adulthood. In order to stay liked by the child’s parents, and in order to impress everyone with their generosity, non-relatives might care for, gift, and teach a child. Cuteness seems to be important in children. Adults have an innate weakness for it. It can be very difficult to remain angry with a cute child, and most children are blessed with some degree of it. Ingratitude and cuteness seem to contradict.

My explanation for the ingratitude of children is not a cheery one. I suspect that children benefit most consistently from a general policy of expecting gifts, demanding gifts, being self-centred, stubbornness, and threatening to throw tantrums, and that an instinct for gratitude would conflict with this. That children do benefit from “bad” behaviour is shown by the fact that they do behave badly. We know from our experience of life, that parents do continue to feed and clothe ungrateful children, and to love them and come to their aid even after the traumatic teenage years. The instincts of parents are strong enough to endure the bad behaviour of children, and therefore adults have to endure, because children have evolved to exploit this fact. The genes of parents are obsolete. The genes that matter are those of children. A child is a selfish being, which has evolved to exploit the parental generation and milk it for all it can get. The emotions which would be conducive for gratitude, such as humbleness, consideration for others, and the actual feeling of gratitude itself, would all get in the way of the more proven strategies of self-centredness and a perception that the world will and ought to supply the child with an endless stream of goodies.

Gratitude would of course often be useful to a child, but evolution plays the odds. If ingratitude nets a child 100 favours a week, and gratitude would net 20, while losing 40 of those gained by emotions incompatible with gratitude, then the casualty is gratitude. If the costs are greater than the benefits, a trait will not evolve. Children with an innate predisposition to be grateful will be out-competed by the ungrateful swines we see in the world today.

If this were the whole truth, however, then we would expect never to see any glimmerings of gratitude in any child. The world would be populated by ungrateful children who grew into ungrateful adults. Fortunately for us, gratitude is something which is useful for an adult, and it is a skill which has to be learned. In adulthood, we cannot expect other people to help us out all the time. Eventually our parents die, and we must fend for ourselves, and strike deals with those around us. We have little respect for “spongers” – people who take from others all the time and give nothing. As adults, we cannot get pieces of cake by threatening to hold our breath until we pass out. We must learn some gratitude. Part of the trick with gratitude is knowing when to be grateful, and knowing just how to express it effectively. If the adult is to be any good at this useful skill, it pays to get some practice in before it is needed all the time.

All people are not the same, and we would expect some people to start practising courtesy and gratitude earlier than others. The most efficient way to be is probably to have an ability to learn gratitude quickly, but to suppress the actual learning of gratitude until the moment when ingratitude stops being beneficial. We might expect socially talented but ungrateful teenagers to learn gratitude double-quick soon after they storm out of their parents’ cosy semi-detached house, and get a room in a shared flat in a dodgy part of town. Interestingly enough, it seems that this is precisely what happens, but with one refinement: whereas these young adults become skilled at being grateful to most of the people they meet, they retain an ingratitude towards their parents. When dealing with someone who loves one unconditionally, it pays to exploit this and to remain demanding. Most co-operation, most love, is conditional upon reasonable behaviour in return.

If I am right, then I would predict that children who start showing gratitude later in life, might actually be more socially talented than those who start practising this skill earlier. The ability to recognise when it is time to get grateful, and the ability to master this new art quickly, is something that a person might be born with. For those less perceptive, and less good at acting, starting younger might be advisable.

To parents (I am not a parent) wanting advice on how to get a child to be more grateful, I would suggest the following: 1. Learn to accept that gratitude is not a child’s strong-point, and 2. Try getting them to be grateful to people other than yourself (at first), especially non-relatives.