A few years ago, my son A.J., then 4, 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 will 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 its time in his 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 one of the most important. Sure, thankful children are more polite and 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 Lewis, author of What Do You Stand For? For Kids (Free Spirit Publishing, 2005). 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," says Lewis.
Indeed, instilling grateful feelings now will benefit your child later in life. A 2003 study at the University of California at Davis showed 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 Mary Jane Ryan, author of Attitudes of Gratitude (Conari, 1999). "Recognizing that someone has gone out of the way for you is not a natural behavior for children -- it's learned."
Toddlers are by definition completely egocentric. Still, children as young as 15 to 18 months can begin to grasp concepts that lead to gratitude, says Lewis. "They start to understand that they are dependent; that Mom and Dad do things for them," she says. In other words, toddlers comprehend that they are separate human beings from their parents, and that Mom and Dad often perform actions to make them happy (from playing peekaboo to handing out cookies) -- even if kids that age can't articulate their appreciation.
By age 2 or 3, children can talk about being thankful for specific objects, pets, and people, says Ryan. "When my daughter Annie was 2, our family would go around the dinner table each night and say one thing we were thankful for,"
she says. "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 for acts of kindness, love, and caring.
Children model their parents in every way, so make sure you use "please" and "thank you" when you talk to them. ("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, a mother of two young daughters.
Charlotte Latvala, a mother of three, lives in Sewickley, Pennsylvania.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, November 2005.