By now, we know how important it is to instill a sense of gratitude in our children – according to the book Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character, those who practice thankfulness get better grades, have a lower risk of depression, and are more engaged in their hobbies and communities. And we’re trying. Around the parenting sphere, there are countless posts about teaching kids to write thank-you letters, start gratitude journals, toss their daily joys into the gratitude jar, and list their blessings at the dinner table. All are completely worthwhile rituals. It seems like parents are becoming really intentional about cultivating gratitude in their homes – or at least about writing about it on the internet. As a mum, I sure would like to become more disciplined in this area. Who wouldn’t?
But teaching kids about gratitude isn’t just sitting down for these heartwarming gestures. It’s more. There are opportunities to teach the skill in all sorts of everyday interactions. Here’s how to help your children harness more gratitude in ways beyond the literal counting of blessings:
Start modelling gratitude early. Really early.
“Thank you for letting me change your diaper. Would you please put your arms down so I can put on your bib? Thank you.” It may sound a little silly, but writer Emily Plank gives these examples to show how mums and dads can model gratitude to even the littlest beings. At this age, it may be more about shaping your own mindset and helping you understand that from the very beginning, you are connecting with a person who is paying close attention to what you say and how you say it. Show them respect and gratitude, and as they grow up, they will do the same for you.
Have them chop the veggies.
Susan Roberts, author of My Kid Eats Everything, told The Atlantic that kids today have horrible diets because they are just being “fed”. In the past, as the article describes, “kids joined families in the kitchen, helping to prepare food, setting the table, clearing the table, and washing the dishes.” Before that, they even helped catch the family’s meals. Modern passivity has dissolved kids’ awareness of what goes into the food on their plate, so how can they be grateful for it? Involve kids in the whole process. Bring them with you to the grocery store. Show them your budget. Have them chop all the veggies. Let them know that food doesn’t just appear out of nowhere, and there is a finite amount of it.
If they lose or break their favourite toy, don’t replace it.
In this just-buy-a-new-one culture, it’s easy for kids to lose their sense of value for the things they have. I know that to quell my daughter’s sobbing, I’ve said, “It’s OK, we can get another one,” to I don’t even remember what. A dropped cookie? An Elmo? If she knew that was the only one she was getting, she might have been more grateful – and careful. Here’s a good reminder from Becoming Minimalist: “Kids who get everything they want believe they can have everything they want.”
Role-play potentially complicated social situations
Getting kids to say “thank you” shouldn’t become a power struggle (more on that in the next section), but it’s important to teach them basic manners. That includes prepping them for situations where they might receive a gift (or food or something else) that they don’t like. As Plank explains, “it’s unfair to expect a child to say ‘thank you’ for a gift she doesn’t want if we haven’t prepared her for that possibility. We are raising children to be truthful.”
She gives examples of how to practice saying no to kind gestures with gratitude:
Unwanted Food: Pretend you’re at a birthday party and Stephen offers you something you don’t like. If you say, “Yuck! I don’t like that!” it might hurt his feelings, or it might hurt the feelings of the other people at the table who do like it. Whenever you don’t want to eat what is offered to you, saying, “I don’t care for that. Thank you,” is a way you can communicate what you want and not hurt the cook’s feelings.
Don’t let ‘Say thank you’ become a power struggle.
It’s a tough balance, because as much as you want to hear your kid to say thank you to the waiter who served her dinner, or the neighbour who picked up her ball, prompts such as “What do you say?” can lead to annoyance and resentment. This issue is a big one for me because my four-year-old always shies away when any adult she doesn’t know tries to talk to her, even when they’re doing something nice. And when she doesn’t say thank you, I fume inside. But the best thing to do is keep practising and modelling gratitude, and not force it upon kids. I liked the philosophy of Larissa Kosmos, who wrote the Washington Post piece, “I stopped forcing my kids to say thank you, and they learned true gratitude.”
“I launched a new habit in situations when someone deserves thanks: I illuminate for my children what has just transpired,” Kosmos writs. “For example, I’ll say, ‘Dad spent time fixing your toy instead of relaxing’ or ‘The librarian left the work at her desk to help you find that book.’ Instead of cuing words to be spoken, I’m aiming to trigger something deeper and more meaningful – awareness.”