Is your child grateful? If you’re like most parents, you’ll answer with a reluctant, “Not always.” Who hasn’t felt a nasty smarting pang in the gut from the sight of a child who takes a gift, tears it open, and throws it aside, inconsiderate of the effort that went into this special attempt to please him? Yes, seeing your child in all his ungrateful glory can be downright horrifying. What am I doing wrong? you wonder. I want my child to have the best of everything, but what’s the point if he doesn’t appreciate it? Should I throw all his toys away and dress him in rags?
Tempting as it may be, you don’t have to go that far, says Virginia Bentz, Ph.D., author of the book Quick Guide to Good Kids (Frederick Fell Publishers, Inc., October 2007, ISBN-13: 978-0-88391-153-2, ISBN-10: 0-88391-153-1, $11.95). But you do need to realize that a lifetime of spoiling, untempered by conscious and frequent lessons in thankfulness, makes ungratefulness a virtual certainty. The good news is you can instill gratitude in your child—and Thanksgiving is the perfect time to start.
“The expression of gratitude does not come naturally to children, but parents can teach it to them,” insists Bentz. “In fact, they do it all the time. And what better time of year to drive the lesson of gratitude home than right now? Thanksgiving is just ahead with Christmas and Hanukkah close on its heels. These holidays are filled with teachable moments and opportunities to show what gratitude really means.”
Read on to learn some great tips for teaching your little one about the gift of gratitude, during the holidays and all year long.
Enforce “thank-yous” in the beginning. The easiest way to teach gratitude is to start when your child is young. You can ask your toddler to say “Thank you” whenever someone has given her something nice. It might be the bank teller giving her a lollipop from the bowl on the counter, or Grandma giving her a cookie. It takes only a few seconds to slow your child down and ask her to acknowledge the gift. Most likely the bank teller or Grandma will add more positive reinforcement by giving positive feedback in the form of “You’re welcome” or “What a polite little girl you are!” Nothing works like praise to help promote good behavior.
You may have to ask your toddler to do this several times (okay, maybe thousands of times), but eventually, she will form the habit and make it an automatic response. When she forgets, you can prompt her gently, “What do you say to Grandma, after she gave you that yummy cookie?” “Often, mothers do this after my story time, and their toddlers cheerfully come to me and say, ‘Thank you, Miss Ginny,'” adds Bentz. “And I smile and tell them they are welcome, and that I’m so happy that they came. It motivates me to plan another entertaining story time for them.”
…And as they grow up. As your child gets older, you can begin to teach him to show gratitude in more “adult” ways. Insist that he thank his relatives for Christmas, Hanukkah, or birthday presents. He may do this in a phone call, where he can tell Aunt Jill how much he likes the Legos she sent him. Or he may even want to create cards that relate his thanks and appreciation for the gifts he receives. This is a courtesy that children will be expected to know and exercise as adults.
“A moral dilemma can arise if he really doesn’t like the gift,” asserts Bentz. “It helps to explain that even if you didn’t want a dominoes game, you need to understand that Uncle Joe was thinking kindly of you, and he went out specially and picked this just for you, and he really hoped that you would like it. If you don’t, his feelings will be hurt. So you can just say that you got his present, you opened it on your birthday, and thank you very much for the dominoes game. That’s enough.”
Practice what you preach. You should be vigilant about thanking people who go out of their way to help you. No matter how rushed you are, “Thank you so much” takes only a few seconds. Your child is always watching you and listening to you, so each time he hears you say “Thank you,” it will deepen his impression that this is a necessary response. Don’t forget to thank your husband for the delicious meal he prepared, or for stopping at the dry cleaner’s on his way home from work. Expressions of gratitude at home are especially powerful, and children see them daily.
“It is also important to really think about your own blessings as you reflect with your child,” says Bentz. “Most of us need the occasional reminder to be kind and grateful for the good life we have and for the daily kindnesses that others show us. Grateful parents are more likely to raise grateful children.”
Try the “silver lining” search. It is easy for children and adults alike to forget how fortunate they are. To help your child (and you!) remember her blessings, try this experiment: Every time you hear a negative comment or complaint come out of your child’s mouth, reply to her with a positive response to teach her to look on the bright side. Since such a large part of gratitude has to do with a person’s perspective, one can easily become a more gracious person by remembering the positives that are often overlooked.
Make the most of the holidays. The holiday season is one of continual good-heartedness, and you can use the joy in the air to your advantage. Take this time to talk with your child about his blessings and teach him to live a life of humble gratitude. Remember, generosity and gratitude often go hand in hand. Have your child go through his closet and pick shoes, clothing, and toys to donate to charity. Around Christmas you can find plenty of gift drives that provide holiday presents to underprivileged children. The message? Because you have so much to be thankful for, it’s important to share with others who aren’t so fortunate.
“Involve the whole family as you set an example for your child,” suggests Bentz. “After you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner, play a game in which everyone at the table shares what they are grateful for. See who can think of the most blessings and make sure your suggestions motivate your little one to focus on what he has.”
Incorporate thanks into your family’s spiritual life. If you celebrate a Higher Being, you can focus on lessons in gratitude as you pass on your beliefs to your child. Since most religions and spiritual traditions already focus on gratitude, it shouldn’t be difficult to incorporate the theme of thankfulness into your devotional time. If you already attend a church, be sure to enroll your child in a Sunday school class that is age appropriate, as many churches make gratitude part of their weekly lessons.
“Teaching children that all good things come from God naturally instills gratitude in them,” says Bentz. “Praying before meals, for instance, is a powerful way to show kids what gratitude looks like.”
Watch “feel good” movies. In the spirit of the holiday season, tune into the yearly broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life and other movies that teach a valuable lesson about being thankful. Even if your child is young, she can still understand the basic themes involved and you can explain the lesson yet again to remind her. Afterward, your family will feel lucky to be alive and be more in tune with the upcoming holidays.
Finally, don’t spoil your child with too many gifts. At the holidays, it’s tempting to go overboard with your gift giving. After all, playing Santa is as fun for parents as it is for kids. But showering your child with tons of toys, games, movies, and candy can undermine your attempts to teach gratitude. First, it breeds entitlement, which is the polar opposite of thankfulness. Second, being overwhelmed with gifts overloads your child’s “gratitude receptors.”
“The less kids get, the more they appreciate what they have,” says Bentz. “Makes sense, right? Set limits on what you’re going to buy your child and don’t let yourself get carried away by the bounty you see in the toy stores. Truly, too much stuff is bad for kids! And you probably don’t want all the clutter in your house either.”
Remember, says Bentz, teaching gratitude is not about making your child fit in socially or become more pleasant to be around. It’s about making sure he acquires a critical element that he needs to live a happy, fulfilled life.
“Gratitude, the inward and outward recognition that someone has gone out of their way for you, is a large part of adult happiness,” says Bentz. “It’s important to stop long enough to enjoy it.” As you say “Thanks,” you’re letting yourself feel good about what you have received, and you are allowing yourself a truly peaceful, satisfied moment. Teach your child to enjoy that same feeling, and you have given her the gift of a lifetime—for learning to accept goodness and be thankful for it is a gift that leads to a truly joyful existence.