A child’s gratitude and respect is the reward for good parenting


An online Wave reader emails:

Dear Dr. Hurd,

My sister is not a good parent. There. I said it. In spite of leaving her kids alone at all hours, speaking rudely to them and feeding them fast food every day (she can afford better!), she is actually resentful that they don’t appreciate her. She cannot understand why they’re not grateful to her, for’what, frankly, I don’t know. Do they automatically owe her gratitude for the marginal job she does as a mother?



Dear Wave reader,

I always cringe when I hear this. I believe that one of the biggest mistakes a parent—good OR bad—can make is to say to their kids, ‘Why can’t you be more grateful? Look at all I’ve done for you!’

My experience with family therapy over the years has given me a unique point of view on this subject, so fasten your seatbelt.

Your sister’s horrific parenting skills notwithstanding, where is it ‘written’ that children are supposed to be grateful to their parents—no matter what? Children do not choose to be born. Adults make the decision to become parents. The fact that an adult makes this choice does not place a claim on that child’s entire life.

Of course, it goes without saying that any fair-minded child, once he grows up, should appreciate anything his parent(s) did for him that genuinely helped him—such as educating him, providing basic self-esteem, honesty, ambition and other positive values. But no parent is entitled to think or say, ‘I brought you life—therefore you owe me.’

Your sister’s situation is an example of why I have always been bothered by the notion that a child must, under any conditions, blindly admire his father and mother. It seems dishonest, and breeds hypocrisy. What about all the parents who do work hard to raise their kids the best they know how? Is it fair to them to say that ALL parents (including your sister)—merely by virtue of producing offspring—have somehow done something that grants them the status of high character?

Imagine a business run this way, where all employees are treated and regarded as exactly the same, even though their individual contributions run from goof-offs to dedicated workers. Wouldn’t the dedicated workers have a right to be insulted?

‘But I sacrifice for my children!’ Sorry, but I don’t buy it. In my view, no parent should say or imply to their grown child, ‘I sacrificed for you, therefore you owe me.’ Sacrifice is defined as giving up a GREATER good (from your personal point of view) for a LESSER good. If your mother says that she sacrificed for you, then she’s implying that she had better things to do than to raise you. If that’s true, then that’s HER problem for making a self-defeating choice. If, however, her purpose was to raise you well and enjoy the results of her efforts, she should be happy that you’re happy.

By the same token, if your father took care of you economically, but ignored (or even harmed) you emotionally, then he has no right to escape your unfavorable view of his parenting by hiding behind the cloak of ‘fatherhood.’ You might credit him for honoring his responsibility to take care of you physically and financially (since some fathers don’t even go this far), but at the same time, you don’t have to pretend that he did any more than that. The ‘sacrifice’ card doesn’t work here, either. If taking care of you was a sacrifice, then that’s sad for him, but it was still his choice to become a parent. If he aspired to some objective other than fatherhood, then he should have pursued that instead. If he allowed anyone to impose parenthood on him, then that was his mistake, not yours—and, quite frankly, you don’t need to hear about it.

It is absolutely not my intention to encourage an attitude of resentment. On the contrary: A lot of parents deserve major gratitude from their kids for a job well done. Some get this appreciation, and some do not. There are plenty of parents out there who deserve better from their kids. I have written in the past about the false entitlement mentality held by some young people today. But none of this changes the fact that parents should be held responsible for their actions no less than children.

There’s a world of difference between, ‘I sacrificed for you—so give back!’ as opposed to, ‘I did a good job; please give me some credit.’ Any fair-minded young adult will respond favorably to the second attitude, but I don’t think anyone with a shred of self-esteem would respond well to the martyr/sacrifice guilt-trip.

The love of a parent for a child can be one of the best kinds of love there is. I love my parents, not because they happened to have the biological wherewithal to reproduce, but because of the values and ambition they worked to instill in me. Having children does not, in and of itself, give somebody a free ride to gratitude and self-esteem. As with any other undertaking in life, that self-esteem—and all the rewards that go with it—must be earned. Enlightened parents who take the lead on this can accomplish so much for themselves—and for their children.