When I was working as a Parent Educator, I always liked to introduce the topic of teaching children gratitude around the Thanksgiving/Christmas holidays. I will be doing that again this Wednesday as I teach parents in a class with which I have been blessed in retirement. Gratitude is one of those attitude virtues that parents think children are somehow going to acquire as we meet their needs and give them gifts. But this is far from the truth. Gratitude must be taught and the point of my introducing the topic was to offer parents strategies to teach their children. It pays off in so many ways – children who are not grateful often grow up onto their adult lives feeling “privileged”, a quality that irritates parents and can get in the way of success in the world. If a person has expectations that the good things in life are handed to them, they are less likely to work for what they want because they believe they are entitled to have these things given to them. In addition, researchers have found that gratitude is the ingredient most needed for true happiness. Without gratitude, one always feels a sense that one does not have enough, that there is more that they need to be happy. I believe that gratitude is central to a healthy spirituality.
Here are some ideas for parents about fostering gratitude in children that have come up in my classes over the years:
- Model gratitude. Speak often about the fact that you are thankful for the blessings of life.
- Include gifts given to you, but also for the gifts of nature and for the goods and services that are provided for you as well as the gifts and services you provide. “I am so grateful that I have the time and health to give to the Foodshelf. It feels good to help others and I love meeting the nice people that come.”
- Show children how to express gratitude. “Thank you” should be one of the first phrases toddlers learn. Have them write thank you notes, a practice that has fallen away over the years. Even a toddler can put a scribble on a piece of paper that you have written on.
- Express gratitude even for what seems to be negative in life. “I am disappointed we can’t go on our picnic because of the rain, but I am grateful for that the birds and trees have water to nourish them.”
- Make giving thanks a regular part of prayer and ritual. Give thanks at meals and at bedtime. For special events, make giving thanks a part of the celebration. Birthdays – make it a practice to express reasons to be thankful for the person being honored. Holidays – gratitude for country or for the sacrifice of our soldiers, gratitude for the contribution of a person in history whose birthday we celebrate. Expressing gratitude for the life of someone who has died can ease the pain of loss. Special family events such as wedding and religious celebrations are times to express gratitude.
- Overindulging children can counter an attitude of gratitude. Limit the gifts for the holidays and birthdays. For things children want between the normal gifting events, help them to work and save for what they want. Working for things raises their awareness that all things in life are not free as well as building skills for providing for their needs in the future. Avoid responding to sudden, temporary whims, such as begging in the toy department of a store. It has been tested and found true that giving in to such whims only gives children reason to continue “begging” in the future. One of my students said that it took three months to break her children of the begging habit once she and her husband decided not to indulge their kids when they were shopping.
- Encourage children to pass on toys and clothing they no longer need. There are countless organizations that will take these, but giving a toy they’ve outgrown to a neighbor child or a younger cousin enables them to actually see the face of the recipient.
These are only a few ideas. There are many others. Teaching gratitude to our children is itself one of the most precious gifts parents can give to their children.