When Kids Are Appreciative... Not!

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  1. I'm catching up on my WSJ online and thought this was a great article! I've tried the guilt thing too, but I usually end up feeling more guilty. Anybody else have any tips and ideas?

    When Kids Are Appreciative... Not

    Sometimes, a little appreciation is all you want. Sometimes, a little aggravation is all you get.

    Several weeks ago, just before taking our son to a pricey soccer camp, my wife, Amy, and I took him shopping to buy the gear he needed for the camp and for his coming season on one of the local premier teams.

    He showed his gratitude by throwing a bunch of attitude in our face when certain things didn't go his way.

    In a moment of frustration back in the car, Amy beat me to the punch, turning to our 10-year-old son and saying: "Do you realize how much money this family is spending on your soccer? It would be nice if you showed some appreciation for what we're doing for you."

    Our parental guilt trip did the trick: He stopped sassing us. But looking back on the event, I'm not so sure our approach was the best one.

    Sure, we made him feel ashamed enough to be quiet. But did he really get the point? I doubt it. He knew enough to feel bad about what he said. But not enough to be truly appreciative for the money we had spent.

    So how do you get kids to appreciate the financial efforts you put forth on their behalf? And what are the risks we parents assume when we use tactics like guilt when trying to drive home our message?

    * * *

    I imagine many parents have dealt with this on some level. Kids are notorious for taking for granted what we do for them, often seemingly oblivious to the fact that, as our own parents once reminded us, money doesn't grow on trees.

    Spend $10 or $100 -- or even $1,000 -- and within five minutes, it's, "What have you done for me lately?"

    You try the rational route, explaining how long it takes Mom and Dad to earn the money necessary to pay for items, a tactic Amy and I have used. But the concept is too vague, and too complicated, for them to understand. They don't work, so for them the difference between a $10 item and a $100 item is pretty much meaningless.

    You try making them spend their own money, thinking a good lesson in personal finance will have them rethinking their insolence.

    Only, with younger kids they're not really earning that money. They're spending an allowance that, while it might require some relatively menial work, effectively comes from Mom and Dad. Plus, unlike parents, they don't have major expenses to plan for or household needs to fund, so if they run out of cash it's not like they're going to starve or face eviction. Basically, they have no authentic financial pressures to shape their spending decisions.

    And, so, you ultimately fall back on guilt, hoping comments like those that Amy made will shame your child into appreciating your efforts today and into the future.

    But as a longtime friend in New Jersey knows, it's just another example of parents fooling themselves. He says his preteen daughter routinely demonstrates a lack of appreciation about his financial efforts, and his attempts to change that always seem to fall flat.

    "We'll be on vacation," he says, "and I will have spent a lot of money doing things during the day with her -- too much money, really. Then I'll say no to some additional want she has, and all I get is disappointment. It can even erase everything else we did that day."

    He typically responds to her unhappiness with, "I've already spent a lot money today and it was all for you." But, he says, that clearly rings false.

    The main problem, he says, is that "a lot of money" doesn't mean much to her. "It's just a number," he says. "A $5 Beanie Baby is sort of equivalent to a $100 theater ticket or a $500 weekend trip to an amusement park. She doesn't truly appreciate them any differently because she doesn't make money. So how could she really understand why I want a lot more appreciation for one over the other?"

    Still, he says, "when I do the guilt-trip thing, she'll thank me and say she appreciates it, and she'll usually stop complaining, at least out loud. But it's frustrating because I can tell they are just words. It isn't coming from her heart."

    * * *

    It's a common tool, guilt, but is it effective? If not, what is effective? And how do you get kids to show appreciation, which isn't a natural sense built into them?

    As I did last week, I sought advice on this from Denise, a friend in San Francisco who is trained to help people manage financial conflicts that arise in relationships.

    Amy's intention with her remark, Denise says, "was right on. You want your child to show appreciation and understand what his family is doing. But guilt does not create appreciation. It creates feelings that a child is a burden to the family, and they end up internalizing these feelings and blame themselves for everything in the family."

    The problem, Denise says, "is with the parents, not the kids. The focus of many families today is on 'more,' and when that 'more' is continually given, it dilutes a person's experiences of giving thanks and being appreciative of what they have.

    "Kids generally have nothing to contrast their life against. All that most have experienced is abundance; they haven't experienced the lack. So they have no way to intuitively come to a place of appreciation. And parents aren't helping them get there when their own focus is on the more and not the thanks."

    Denise's suggested remedy: Help your kids build that contrast into their life, and infuse a sense of gratitude into your family routines.

    "Volunteer work, like at a soup kitchen, will help them experience directly the real differences that exist in life," she says. "And every day, make it part of your ritual, maybe at the dinner table, to show gratitude for something that day that is not material." This will take some time, she says. "Research with adults shows the brain takes several months to shift the way it thinks."

    As for the guilt trips, "avoid them," Denise says. "Instead, try to step back and speak from your own experiences with appreciation and how it relates to this incident. Guilt isn't going to work, and at some point it's going to affect the way your child thinks."
  2. GREAT article!

    I was such an inappreciative kid. I couldn't appreciate all that my parents did for me until I was financially on my own at 22. I couldn't BELIEVE how much a vacation cost!!