Here's a question for you, as we head into gift-giving season: Have you ever loomed over your child, tapping your foot impatiently while she ekes out thank-you notes at the rate of one every 47 minutes?
It's no fun for anyone, but we soldier on because we want our children to appreciate the presents they've been given. It turns out that this ritual isn't really helping your child feel grateful, though, because it's not something she's inspired to do on her own. "You want to create an environment in which gratitude arises in an authentic way," says Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and a sociologist at the University of California-Berkeley. Having a child write your basic "Thanks for the _____, I really like it" note is just a chore, for both of you.
Children shouldn't be able to blow off thank-you notes altogether, of course, but don't count on them, or annual traditions like Thanksgiving dinner "what-I'm-grateful-for" recitations, to magically make your offspring appreciate their good fortune. Instead, keep these principles in mind as you lay the groundwork for gratitude, and see which techniques can work for your family.
It's tempting to try to help kids be appreciative by reminding them how lucky they are. "As a child, I heard a lot of 'Believe me, it could be much worse!' " says Laurie Gray, a mom in Fort Wayne, Indiana. "My parents would say, 'There are kids starving in Africa who would be grateful to eat spinach!' I ended up feeling more resentment and guilt than appreciation for what I had," says Gray.
Dr. Carter has found that gratitude comes more naturally to kids (and adults) in conditions of scarcity. If we don't have enough warm clothes to wear, for example, we're thankful for a hand-me-down sweater, even if it isn't our favorite style or color. When kids are fortunate enough to have their basic needs met, it's easy for them to develop a sense of entitlement: "I can't go to school in that ugly sweater! I need this new one instead!"
To create a foundation for gratitude, be a role model, says Parents advisor Robert Pianta, Ph.D., dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. Think about how you wish your child would express his thankfulness, he advises, and then show him how it's done by sharing what you're thankful for. You can start doing this with toddlers and preschoolers.
When your child is around 4, you can begin encouraging deliberate, thoughtful thankfulness by helping her be specific with her thanks, says Dr. Pianta. "We are teaching our daughter to say, 'Thank you, Mom, for making a delicious dinner,' " instead of tossing out a quick "Thanks!" as she runs away from the table, says Karla Osorno, of Reno, Nevada, whose daughter, Sophia, is 5. Now that Osorno and her husband have pointed out opportunities for gratitude, Sophia is learning to see them for herself and to tailor them to the situation. As kids grow, they become better able to see other people's perspective, Dr. Pianta explains. "At 7, 8, and 9, children have a clearer understanding of what it means to give." They grasp that someone spent time, money, or effort (or all three) on them, and that should be acknowledged. In the meantime, you can infuse your child's life with simple ideas like these to recognize all that you have to be thankful for.