2 reasons your toddler seems ungrateful (hint: it’s not because he is)

2 reasons your toddler seems ungrateful (hint: it's not because he is)
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?

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12 thoughts on “2 reasons your toddler seems ungrateful (hint: it’s not because he is)

  1. Baguette is good with transitions (at least, as of this morning–I am aware that this could change at any time), but I was just thinking yesterday about how my mother would call out, “Five minute warning!”

    It wasn’t always five minutes, but it was a warning.

  2. We do the time thing, too. We let her know how many minutes till the next activity. It has worked well for us.
    As far as fuss after food. I usually offer a healthy snack if she’s still hungry. She’s not a big eater so if I can get food in her, I’m thrilled! 🙂

  3. I agree it’s important to see things from their point of view. What seems like a little deal to us (finishing a yummy food or leaving a play ground) is huge in their lives. The other thing I have to remember is that often I have similar feelings but I’m just a tad bit more socialized to conceal them. How often have I been disappointed because someone else grabbed the last goody on a platter at a party? I may not have had a fit, and if offered it I would have been gracious and let the other person have it, but I still wanted more! We have been known to stay somewhere (someone’s house or an outing we’re enjoying) longer than is good for our little guy or even us just because we didn’t want to leave.
    I think another reason it can be so hard for them is that kids lack that kind of control–to say yup, I know this is a bad decision but I’m doing it anyway (and too often when they are a little older and do just that, they are berated for it…but that’s a whole different topic!)

  4. SImilar to the 5 minute warning I find that if I tell my son that an activity will come to the end after I count to ten, and then I count pretty slowly he is fine with most transitions that previous to this sent him in a tailspin. I also will tell him what enjoyable aspect he can expect in the next activity to follow. Not fail-proof, but it works pretty darn well.

  5. Good suggestions! In some cases, providing closure or a clear mark to the end of an activity or time works well for us. Usually this involves putting toys away in their proper spot, doing one last dump of sand at the play ground or saying “good night” to the rooms and everyone.

      • Yep saying bye bye works for us too! My two year old often shouts out, ‘more tractor!’ as he sees one driving up the road. He sometimes gets upset, we can’t give him more tractors even if we wanted to and he soon gets over it, so similarly I figured he’ll get over the fact we say no more snacks when he asks for more.

  6. “(kids) 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.”
    What a beautiful insight.

  7. This is a huge stage for Ally lately. She’s been so good up until this stage, but I really can’t handle the whining! I don’t even mind if she’s ungrateful, but when she cries about something that I can’t possibly give her (ie more smoothie from your example) it drives me nuts! Minimal concept of time – yes, but she already gained a concept of quantity! Where did it go?!?!?!

  8. Transitioning from one to another has always been difficult for Livi ever since she was born. She couldn’t even handle going from the car seat to the stroller or “little” things like that. So early on we had to come up with solutions. Often we would carry her and look at pictures on the wall or show her around when we were outside before leaving or moving on to the next activity.
    Now that she is older, it is especially hard for her to leave the park or stop playing. We still do our usual transition activities but now we also talk to her and let her know that we will soon do something else. She doesn’t quite understand it yet, but hopefully she’ll get used to it and it will be a little bit easier down the line.

  9. That is great advice and you have kind of opened up my eyes to a few things as my 18 month old is constantly throwing temper tantrums. And it usually because she can’t have more of what she really likes, like cookies or ice cream, or coming in from outside. I will have to us your advice and see if it works.

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