070: Why isn’t my child grateful?

“I spent the whole morning painting and doing origami and felting projects with my daughter – and not only did she not say “thank you,” but she refused to help clean up!” (I actually said this myself this morning:-))

“We took our son to Disneyland and went on every ride he wanted to go on except one, which was closed, and he spent the rest of the trip whining about how the whole trip was ruined because he didn’t get to go on that one ride.” (I hope I never have to say this one…I’m not sure I could make it through Disneyland in one piece.)

You might recall that we did an episode a while back on manners, and what the research says about teaching manners, and how what the research says about teaching manners comes from the assumption that manners MUST be explicitly taught – that your child will NOT learn to say “thank you” unless you tell your child “say thank you” every time someone gives them a gift.

We also talked about how parent educator Robin Einzig uses the concept of “modeling graciousness” and that if you treat other people graciously, when your child is ready, she will be gracious as well.  The problem here, of course, is that most people expect your child to display some kind of manners before they are developmentally ready to really understand the concept behind it.

But what really underlies manners?  Well, ideas like gratitude.  Because when we train children to say “thank you” before they are ready to do it themselves they might learn to recite the words at the appropriate time, but they aren’t really experiencing gratitude.

Dr. Jonathan Tudge of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro tells us much more about this, and how we can scaffold our child’s ability to experience gratitude, if we decide we might want to do that.

Dr. Tudge’s book, Developing Gratitude in Children and Adolescents (co-edited with Dr. Lia B. L. Freitas) contains lots more academic research on this topic if you’re interested.



Halberstadt, A.G., Langley, H.A., Hussong, A.M., Rothenberg, W.A., Coffman, J.L., Mokrova, I., & Costanzo, P.R. (2016). Parents’ understanding of gratitude in children: A thematic analysis. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 36, 439-451.

Kiang, l. Mendonca S., Liang, Y., Payir, A., O’Brien, L.T., Tudge, J.R.H., & Freitas, L.B.L. (2016). If children won lotteries: Materialism, gratitude, and imaginary windfall spending. Young Consumers 17(4), 408-418.

Mendonca, S.E., Mercon-Vargas, E.A., Payir, A., & Tudge, J.R.H. (2018). The development of gratitude in seven societies: Cross-cultural highlights. Cross-Cultural Research 52(1), 135-150.

Mercon-Vargas, E.A., Poelker, A.E., & Tudge, J.R.H. (2018). The development of the virtue of gratitude: Theoretical foundations and cross-cultural issues. Cross-Cultural Research 52(1), 3-18.

Mokrova, I.L., Mercon-Vargas, E.A., & Tudge, J.R.H. (2018). Wishes, gratitude, and spending preferences in Russian Children. Cross-Cultural Research 52(1), 102-116.

Nelson, J.A., Freitas, L.B.L., O’Brien, M., Calkins, S.D., Leerkes, E.M., & Marcovich, S. (2013). Preschool-aged children’s understanding of gratitude: Relations with emotion and mental state knowledge. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 31, 42056.

Tudge, J.R.H., & Freitas, L.B.L. (Eds.) (2018). Developing gratitude in children and adolescents. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press.

Wang, D., Wang, Y.C., & Tudge, J.R.H. (2015). Expressions of gratitude in children and adolescents: Insights from China and the United States. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 46(8), 1039-1058.


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  1. Megan on August 12, 2018 at 5:11 PM

    Very interesting podcast, thought-provoking as usual.
    So is society mis-using the word ‘gratitude’ left and right? I never think of ‘gratitude’ as so tied to the exchange of transactional social currency, that’s not really how I define it, or I think how most people define it. I guess my working definition of gratitude is recognizing that someone did a thing for me, recognizing that they didn’t have to do it, and feeling warmly towards them because they did it. I don’t think reciprocation (if possible) is all that important to the feeling I describe as gratitude, or rather I don’t feel that the definition of ‘gratitude’ includes the ongoing reciprocal relationship I hope the feelings foster.
    For example, being grateful for parents’ sacrifices cannot really be reciprocated, unless our definition of familial gratitude is by definition concerned about what the children will do for us in the future. I want my child to feel lucky for the privileges our family is able to provide him, and I want him to feel like helping me set the table out a sense of feeling like an integral part of a functioning household and a fondness for me. But I don’t really want my kiddo to be thinking of reciprocation when I do something nice for him or him for me. Scaffolding and maintaining transactional relationships to bank social currency and interpersonal trust is a good skill I hope my son has, but it seems superficial (or an extrinsic reward motivation) to define gratitude by it. Where’s the warm fuzzy then, if it’s all focused on transactions?

    • Jen Lumanlan on August 12, 2018 at 11:15 PM

      Thanks so much for these thoughts, Megan. This issue is important enough that I reached out to Dr. Tudge to request his response, which I will paste below. Hope it helps!

      Thanks so much for your interesting and very thoughtful comment. No, I don’t think that society is misusing the word at all. Society isn’t really bothered about definitions and there’s no reason why it should be. So, for society, the terms “appreciation”, “thankfulness”, and “gratitude” are almost certainly used interchangeably. And that’s perfectly fine. There’s always some degree of ambiguity in the words we use, but two people talking to one another typically end up understanding pretty well what each of them meant, and if there are misunderstandings they (sometimes) get cleared up in the course of conversation.

      Science and society are different, however, and even social scientists have to be clearer (or should be clearer) in the meanings that ascribe to words than we expect society to be. And I think that appreciation and gratitude are quite different. To some extent society agrees with me, and I suspect that you might as well. Just imagine that you’re in a position in which someone does something really nice for you, unbidden and intentional. Yes, you feel great about that and about the person. So far so good. But then you have a chance to help that person when he or she really needs help. You do nothing. What are you? Are you grateful or ungrateful? If, as a matter of course, you typically fail to help others who have helped you (assuming that they need help and you have the opportunity to provide that help), no matter how warm and fuzzy you feel at the time that you were helped, I’m sorry but I (and I suspect most of society) would tar you with the brush of ingratitude.

      That’s why I think that reciprocity is important. The BIG issue, though, is the reasoning and feeling behind the reciprocity. Gratitude, as I define it (and as I think it should be defined) has nothing to do with a “tit-for-tat” reciprocity (you did something for me; OK, now I’ll have to do something for you). It has nothing to do with a contract that’s struck and now has to be fulfilled. Gratitude, as a virtuous aspect of one’s character, has developed when you not only feel good about what others have done for you but genuinely desire to reciprocate…should an opportunity become available. It may never become available, and then there’s nothing you can do for that person (although you might think about paying it forward as a next best thing). Warm feelings about what was done and about the other person are, of course, great…but gratitude requires of us more than warm feelings.

      You’re absolutely right that you shouldn’t want your son to think of reciprocity as something he has to do because you were nice for him. But the warm and loving relationship you have should develop in such a way that you both WANT (desire) to do things for each other when opportunities arise. That sort of desire, among people who are genuinely grateful, extends beyond the family circle to all those others who do good things for us. No, there’s no contract to be fulfilled…what we want is for that desire to be there. And if it is, your son will have developed into the sort of person who doesn’t just help those who have helped him; he’s also likely to go out of his way to help others…thereby starting new potential cycles of gratitude. He won’t have helped BECAUSE he wants something in return, but because the thinking and concern for others is now part of his character.

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