Do we Deserve Gratitude from our Children?

Remember how the adults who grew up in the Depression (our parents, many of them) used to talk to their children? "You're so lucky. I never had this (good thing). We always had to do that (hard thing)." I don't think many of us gave them the response they were hoping for: "You're so right. You did have a harder time than I'm having, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for working so hard and overcoming so many obstacles to give me all this comfort and security. The depth of my gratitude is beyond words." We were more likely to think, "Oh no, not the old hard childhood trip again? Can't they see we have problems of our own?"

Now, as a parent myself, I'm working hard to make my own children's lives even better. I try to treat them with complete respect, to value their needs and desires as much as I value my own. I try to remember that they are already fully human, and not at some half-formed stage awaiting completion.

Trying to actually practice these beliefs, however, is a constant stretch, and I'm always wishing that my children would be more grateful.. This comes out, not in little homilies about the Depression, or in frustrated fits of yelling and hitting (usually), but in subtle little guilt trips about how hard-working, blameless, and under-appreciated their mom is. It took me a while to realize and name it, but I can see now that it's a standard response in times of stress. "I told you ten minutes ago to start getting dressed. It's not my fault that I'm snapping and rushing you around now." "How can you ask me to help you with that when it's obvious that I'm busy doing something else that's important to our family life?" "Don't give me a hard time. Can't you see that I'm tired out from the work of being your mom?"

Here we are, trying to do better for our children than was done for us, and they just don't appreciate it! We strive to give them things we never had, such as working hard for their economic security, or stretching ourselves to provide that emotional support we never knew as children. They calmly take whatever we give them for granted--and then, often as not, have the nerve to expect more!

It's been useful to me to realize that what we give our children becomes their reality, their norm. They don't take history into consideration when they accept all that we offer. They don't compare it with what they might hypothetically have received in another place or time. They just accept it. As they grow older they may gain some perspectives on the value of what they've been given. That might lead to gratitude. But it might just as well lead to frustration that even parents who provide a lot are still flawed, or outrage that other children don't get even that much.

We deserve appreciation for the efforts we make on our children's behalf. But expecting that appreciation from the children is a trap. We didn't bear them in order to get appreciated. They don't owe us anything. They will love us. They will give us the gift of their life in our lives. But they will rarely thank us for trying so hard--and that's fine.

Who, then, will appreciated us the way we deserve? Not our children. Certainly not society at large, which takes the work of parenting almost totally for granted. Who really knows how hard a parent tries to make life better for the children, how far we extend ourselves for their sakes? Parents know. I can appreciate you for the wonderful job that you're doing, and you can appreciate me. Together we can decide to never let another parent go unappreciated. It may be the most valuable gift we can give each other.