The other day, my husband made one of our usual breakfasts—oatmeal and fruit—with a little extra treat for our toddler: a peanut butter sandwich. LO practically shoved aside the oatmeal in lieu of the sandwich and gobbled it up in record speed. Once his hands were empty though, he cried for more. “It’s all gone,” we tried explaining to him. Nothing seemed to register. Rather than being thrilled at having eaten a favorite snack, he instead showed little thanks once the sandwich was over.
This wasn’t the first time our toddler seemed ungrateful for something that should have brought more joy than cries. I had offered to show him slideshows on my computer and to see some waterfalls which I knew he liked. Both instances ended with him asking for more rather than enjoying the moment that transpired. We have also given him a smoothie only to face more crying when the drink ran out, and we took him to a playground he loved—staying for several hours—just to be thanked with a tantrum when we had to leave.
“Do you think he’s being ungrateful?” I asked my husband later that day. “I don’t feel like doing anything fun or giving him special treats if doing so causes him to throw a fit.”
“I don’t think he’s being ungrateful,” he responded. “He’s just dealing with emotions that we assume as ingratitude.” We thought about potential reasons why our little guy cried instead of relished the treat and came up with the following two:
- He’s unsatisfied. When he’s having fun at the playground or drinking a smoothie, nothing seems worse than when it all comes to an end. I imagine the same is true for adults: eating a bowl of ice cream just isn’t as great when it’s over as when I’m actually eating it. Except with kids, they don’t always know that things come to an end, or why we have to leave the playground, or that there truly aren’t any smoothies hidden somewhere.
- He’s unhappy about something else. My toddler also wasn’t in the best of moods to begin with when he threw a tantrum at the playground. He was tired, teething, and for the past several days, wasn’t his normal chipper self. When kids face rough days, any little nudge towards unhappiness takes on a wild ride in itself.
It’s so easy to feel down when kids don’t seem to appreciate the effort and intention we had. After all, when we treat others and surprise them with fun activities, we expect joy, not necessarily a fit of tears. Yet often it’s up to us to thicken our skin and realize that kids aren’t being ungrateful so much as they are disappointed, confused, frustrated, and a slew of other emotions they’re just learning to process. Instead of succumbing to their frustration, my husband and I now help him try to understand a bit more about the world:
- Give him notices. Even though our toddler probably can’t tell time yet, we help transition him from one activity to the next by letting him know we’ll be doing something different soon. Whether it’s five minutes before leaving the playground, 10 minutes until stepping out of the house, of 15 minutes until bath time, my toddler seems to appreciate knowing that a transition is about to occur and can mentally prepare for it rather than simply whisking him away when it’s time.
- Entice him with the next activity. If you’re lucky to find something fun in the next activity, highlight that fact to help your child move on from her current activity to the next. For instance, bath time in itself may not sound exciting compared to being able to continue playing in the living, but saying, “Let’s play with the water like the way we played with the puddle earlier at the park today!” may just be what he needs to leave what he’s doing in lieu of what’s next.
- Plan treats accordingly. With the best of intentions, my husband probably could have waited to give our toddler the peanut butter sandwich after he had already eaten the oatmeal. I imagine the same goes for me should I be given dessert before my main meal. With a full tummy, kids are less likely to want more and instead appreciate the treat they have.
- Describe and relish the moment. Rather than treating an activity or a treat as something to be consumed, we can help kids appreciate the moment by recounting what’s happening as it’s taking place. For instance, as my toddler drank his smoothie, we could have described its yummy taste, cold temperature and thick texture. When kids focus on the moment, they’re less likely to rush and instead take pleasure as it happens. Talking about the moment can also stretch the time rather than rushing through it.
- Accept the tantrum. Sometimes kids will just escalate their frustration to a full-blown tantrum, and the best course of action is to simply accept its occurrence and handle the tantrum appropriately.
- Consider his point of view. The overarching tip I’d like to end with is to always consider the scenario from your child’s point of view. Only in expressing empathy can we begin to understand children’s emotions and determine that he’s not trying to spite us and be ungrateful but rather is simply expressing frustration in the ways that he’s developmentally able to.
As tempted as I was never to take him to the playground again, I knew that withholding fun activities isn’t the best remedy (nor a realistic one). With a bit of timing and preparation, we’ve since been able to continue his favorite activities with less cries and seeming “ingratitude.”
How do you handle your kids when they fuss about a treat that has finished?