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."

When Do Kids Get It?

Even though toddlers are completely egocentric, children as young as 15 to 18 months can begin to grasp concepts that lead to gratitude, Lewis says. "They start to understand that they are dependent, that Mom and Dad do things for them," she adds. In other words, toddlers comprehend that they are distinct human beings from their parents and that Mom and Dad often perform actions (from playing peekaboo to handing out cookies) to make them happy -- even if children that age can't articulate their appreciation.

By age 2 or 3, children can talk about being thankful for specific objects, pets, and people, Ryan says. "When my daughter Annie was 2," she recounts, "our family would go around the dinner table each night and say one thing we were thankful for. Annie wasn't particularly verbal, but when it was her turn, she would point her finger at every person. She was grateful for us!"

By age 4, children can understand being thankful not only for material things like toys, but also for acts of kindness, love, and caring.

How to Teach It

Children mimic their parents in every way, so make sure you use "please" and "thank you" when you talk to your kids. ("Thanks for that hug -- it made me feel great!") Insist on their using the words too. After all, "Good manners and gratitude overlap," says New York City etiquette consultant Melissa Leonard. Here are some more tips you can try.

Work gratitude into your daily conversation. Lately, we've been trying to weave appreciation for mundane things into our everyday talk with A.J., his big sister, Mathilda, and especially our youngest, Mary Elena. ("We're so lucky to have a good cat like Sam!" "Aren't the colors in the sunset amazing?" "I'm so happy when you listen!") When you reinforce an idea frequently, it's more likely to stick. One way to turn up the gratitude in your house is to pick a "thanking" part of the day. Two old-fashioned, tried-and-true ideas: talk about the good things that happened that day as part of your dinnertime conversation, and make bedtime prayers part of your nightly routine.

Have kids help. It happens to all of us: You give your child a chore, but it's agonizing to watch him take forever to clear the table or make a huge mess mixing the pancake batter. The temptation is to step in and do it yourself. But the more you do for them, the less they appreciate your efforts. (Don't you feel more empathy with people who work outside on cold days when you've just been out shoveling snow yourself?) By participating in simple household chores such as feeding the dog or stacking dirty dishes on the counter, kids realize that all these things take effort.

Find a goodwill project. This doesn't mean you need to drag your toddler to a soup kitchen every week, Lewis says. Instead, figure out some way he can actively participate in helping someone else, even if it's as simple as making cupcakes for a sick neighbor. "As you're stirring the batter or adding sprinkles," Lewis suggests, "talk about how you're making them for a special person and how happy the recipient will be."

Encourage generosity. "We frequently donate toys and clothes to less fortunate kids," says Hulya Migliorino, of Bloomingdale, New Jersey. "When my daughters see me giving to others, it inspires them to go through their own closets to give something special to those in need as well."

Insist on thank-you notes. Paula Goodnight, of Maineville, Ohio, always has her daughters (Rachel, Amelia, and Isabella) write thank-yous for gifts. "When they were toddlers, the cards were just scribbles with my own thank-you attached," she says. "As they grew, their scribbles became drawings, then longer letters." Younger children can even dictate the letter while you write, Lewis says: "Just the act of saying out loud why he loved the gift will make him feel more grateful."

Practice saying no. Of course kids ask for toys, video games, and candy -- sometimes on an hourly basis. But it's difficult, if not impossible, to feel grateful when your every whim is granted. Hearing you say no can make your yesses sound that much sweeter.

Be patient. You can't expect gratitude to develop overnight -- it requires weeks, months, and even years of reinforcement. But trust me, you will be rewarded. Four years after the robotic-dog fiasco, I can now report that A.J. is a grateful, cheerful boy who delights in making others happy. Sure, he asked for lots of presents last Christmas, but he was just as excited about requesting gifts for his sisters. "They've both been good girls and deserve something special," he wrote in his letter to Santa. Now I'm the one feeling grateful.

Surviving the Holiday Gift Glut

Limit extracurricular giving. Stick to a no-gifts policy with playdate, Sunday school, or preschool buddies.

Take the big day slowly. Instead of one huge gift-grabbing frenzy, suggests Ryan, have family members open presents one at a time. "You can make it a little ritual, with all eyes on the person opening the gift," she says. "That way you have a few moments for appreciation built in."

Stash 'em. If you feel your child will be receiving too many gifts this holiday season, put a few of them away to dole out as rainy-day surprises throughout the year.

Downplay the presents. Put more emphasis on celebrating -- making cookies, attending religious services, decorating the tree, lighting the menorah, or visiting relatives.

Take them shopping. To buy gifts for other family members, that is. Even better, have them create homemade presents. Children get immense pleasure from giving gifts and seeing you express gratitude for them.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the November 2007 issue of American Baby magazine.

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