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Why are these children so ungrateful?

"I have been working as a child care worker for a few months now. It seems that the children's home does a lot for the children but why are these children so ungrateful?"

The word "grateful" is an interesting word. It comes from a whole group of words which reflect a warm, polite, pleasurable and mutual relationship between people (gratify). It contains ideas of acceptance, willingness, loving indulgence, agreeableness, dignity and charm (grace). It portrays joy and delight in the happiness or success of close ones (congratulate). And in rather more formal senses, it reflects ideas of reward, payment or recompense in return for work done or favours shown (gratuity) or, amongst friends and colleagues, more often the idea of doing something as a favour, with no charge (gratis). It is always something reciprocal, and at the least it conveys respect, compliance and acknowledgement: the original meaning of "thank you" was "I do you honour".

This long lesson on words was to contrast the idea of "grateful" with the usual experience of troubled children. Most troubled kids get to feel graceless, disgraceful, like a persona non grata an unacceptable person.

In short, to be grateful, a child would first need to feel part of a mutual or loving group, whose ways were clear and understood. This has not been the experience of children in care. It is hard for them to accept things given to them as expressions of love, acceptance and dignity and yet they need things.

Deprived children and things
When a loved one gives us something, we often distinguish between its real value and its sentimental value. We know that even the smallest gestures between people who love each other are full of additional meaning and we are grateful for this. You will find that many troubled children divorce things from meaning. Things they can understand; meaning has always been elusive. When confronted by deprived children we quickly respond by giving we can see that their immediate needs are indeed for food, warmth, comfort. We are tempted to engage them by giving them things, and yes, at that initial stage we are seen by the children as a means for getting the things they need.

Moving beyond getting
English child care writer Christopher Beedell warned that we should soon move from the early stage of "providing" deprived children with what they need, to the stage of personalised "giving" so that, he said, the child feels the experience as caring. In other words, the transaction of giving and receiving should grow towards something which takes place within the relationship between two people.

And this takes us back to all those words with which we started this reply.

This building of a relationship is the crucial turning point in this forward move as it is, of course, in all of our work with children. As long as we "provide" them with what they need (in an institutional, impersonal or group sense) we will be looked at for what the kids can get from us. A mark of the so-called institutionalised child is this mercenary and manipulative attitude towards carers. The task of changing this is ours.

So, in thinking about children's lack of gratitude, we look first at each individual child in terms of such things as belonging, attachment, affection, relationship, reciprocity and caring. This will raise for us a whole lot of other questions ...