Thanksgiving is tomorrow but being grateful is more than just a holiday expression – it’s an achievement that can add meaning and fulfillment to one’s life. Teaching gratefulness requires patience, creativity and modeling the same behavior.
Small children are not naturally grateful. They are often self-centered because their world is very small- it revolves pretty much around them and what they want. Sometimes it is about survival, getting the food and shelter they need. Other than that it becomes getting the things they want for entertainment and self-pleasure.
But at some point a child needs to learn what others do for you and what others need is important too.
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 often egocentric but they can learn as young as 15 to 18 months the concept of gratitude. By ages 2 to 3, they can begin to appreciate things. And by age 4 they can understand being thankful for acts of kindness, love and caring.
So, how do you teach children gratitude?
There are several ways you can begin to help your child understand the concept of gratitude. First, be a model of gratitude. Say “thanks you “ and “please” when you ask for or receive gifts or acts of love and kindness. Good manners and gratitude often overlap.
Add gratitude into everyday conversation. Children often learn concepts by how a subject is presented. Having a context in which to relate something to helps form a definition. Anytime the family is together, such as at breakfast or dinner have everyone express one thing they are grateful for. At first a child may say they are grateful for a toy or a thing, but eventually they will learn that they can be grateful for friends, family and even unexpected challenges.
Talk about gratitude and ungrateful behavior. Help your child learn the difference. When they are tired or hungry or acting out is not the best time to discuss concepts – wait till they are in a good mood and well rested.
Kids, especially young ones, are apt to say whatever is on their minds. They may be given a gift and blurt out how much they hate it. This type of behavior can be more about the developmental stage they are in than the fact that they are ungrateful. This is an excellent time to discuss why they hate the gift and offer an explanation about how saying something unkind can have an impact on someone else’s feelings. With preschoolers leave it at that. With older children you may want them to write a thank you note for the gift after explaining that it’s the thought that counts not necessarily the gift.
Will your child suddenly love the gift? Probably not, but it’s the beginning of learning appreciation for the person giving the gift, not the thing itself. Later on it can make a difference as your child matures.
You can also role-play. Preschoolers love to pretend – have them pretend someone has given them something they don’t like or want- what would they say to that person? If they can’t think of anything you can suggest a simple “thank you.”
Another gratitude lesson is learning to help. Give your child a chore to do. It’s easy to want to jump in and do the chore yourself when they are slow or actually make a bigger mess than the original chore required. But if you can be patient and let a child learn how to perform a task well, then show your gratitude for the effort, they can learn how much you appreciate their trying.
Include your child in a goodwill project. Something simple like making cookies for a sick friend or relative. Buying a gift for someone or donating money to a cause that a child can relate to.
Encourage your child to help others. Visiting a nursing home, sorting clothes for the needy, volunteering at places where children are allowed to help. It doesn’t’ have to be weekly or even monthly – but stepping outside their comfort zone to help others can help them see that they have much to be grateful for. Follow up with conversations about how serving others can bring joy into their own lives.
Say no. Embrace a less is more philosophy. Too many toys and gifts can dull a child’s (and an adult’s) recognition of appreciation and lead to a sense of entitlement. Children pretty much ask for things constantly - more toys, candy, clothes, video games – the list is endless. It’s difficult to feel grateful when your every whim is granted. Saying no often makes hearing yes that much sweeter.
Be patient. A child is not going to understand the concept or the practice of gratitude right away. It requires time and experience. But your child will eventually gain an understanding and be a better person for it.
As we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday this year, there are so many things to be grateful for. Start now by making a list and sharing it with your family.