The Grateful Child

Teaching your child the importance of saying thank you.

The Art of Appreciation

Mom holds son in air, sky in background

When my son, A.J., was 4, he was obsessed with getting a robotic dog. Whenever we drove past a toy store, he started his pleading. Convinced that nothing would make him happier than that dog, my husband and I broke down and bought him the most expensive version on the market for Christmas. "He'll be so thankful when he opens this gift," we told ourselves. And yes, A.J. was thrilled -- for about a week. Then we noticed the dog spent most of the time in the closet, as A.J. begged for other, even more expensive toys -- a drum set, a riding mini-Jeep, a huge playhouse. "You'd think he'd be grateful for what he has," I complained to my husband, Tony. "The more we give him, the less he appreciates it."

Gratitude is one of the trickiest concepts to teach toddlers and preschoolers, who are by nature self-centered. But it's also one of the most important. Sure, thankful, polite children are pleasant to be around, but there's more to it than that. By learning gratitude, they become sensitive to the feelings of others, developing empathy and other life skills along the way, says Barbara A. Lewis, author of What Do You Stand For? For Kids (Free Spirit). Grateful kids look outside their one-person universe and understand that their parents and other people do things for them -- prepare dinner, dole out hugs, buy toys. "On the flip side, kids who aren't taught to be grateful end up feeling entitled and perpetually disappointed," Lewis says.

Indeed, instilling grateful feelings now will benefit your child later in life. A 2003 study at the University of California at Davis shows that grateful people report higher levels of happiness and optimism -- along with lower levels of depression and stress. The catch? "No one is born grateful," says life coach M.J. Ryan, author of Attitudes of Gratitude (Conari). "Recognizing that someone has gone out of the way for you is not a natural behavior for children -- it's learned."

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