Teach your kids to use the magic words, and follow our tips to foster gratitude from an early age.
By Peg Rosen
It was a typical Tuesday, and I had just returned home after picking up my two sons from school. Saddled with their backpacks, lunch boxes, and jackets, I schlepped into the house as they dashed upstairs to play. Just as I began folding a heap of laundry, my preschooler appeared behind me. “I’m thirsty!” he declared. I robotically headed toward the fridge to pour him a drink. But something stopped me. I simply couldn’t “do” one more thing for two kids who seemed to think the universe revolved around them. “That’s interesting, Noah,” I said. “What would you like me to do about it?” He looked at me as if I had two heads but pieced together an actual request: “Can I have a drink?” I stood there waiting. And waiting. Until he finally got it. “Um, please?”
This incident was the beginning of a big-time turnaround in my family. My children are good kids; they just needed to learn how to express their appreciation. “Gratitude does not come naturally,” says Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. “It’s like a muscle that must be built up and strengthened throughout childhood.” Here, a few ideas to help kids understand the meaning of gratitude.=
Be a role model.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to express gratitude yourself. “We have to be grateful for our blessings and be mindful of what we say and do if that’s what we want for our children,” says Martha Farrell Erickson, Ph.D., senior fellow with the Children, Youth, and Family Consortium at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis. Do you politely ask the waitress at the diner (or, for that matter, your spouse) for a napkin and then thank her? Do you make an effort to notice a sunny day or happily acknowledge a traffic-free drive home? On the flip side, it’s easy to get caught up grumbling about your annoying boss, the number of errands you have to do, or the old car you’re driving. Be aware that children absorb this like sponges. Just as important, express appreciation to your kids, not only for pitching in or behaving during dinner but also for some of their more intangible gifts. Tell your 3-year-old what great company he was at the hardware store or how his visit lifted Grandma’s spirits.
Tackle thank-you notes together.
Michèle O’Reilly, owner of the Connecticut School of Etiquette, in Darien, heartily endorses the near-lost art of writing thank-you notes, even for children who are too young to write. “A 4-year-old can tell you what he liked about his present, and you can write the note for him,” she says. Another option: Ask him to draw a picture, and let him sign it.
Help them help others.
Pitching in at a local soup kitchen or delivering holiday presents to a group home are meaningful experiences for kids, but a gracious act doesn’t need to be grandiose to teach the same lesson, says Dr. Mogel. Simply put, charity starts at home. A toddler can be encouraged to speak on the phone each week with a relative who lives alone. If a friend misses out on a big field trip because she’s sick, your child can call or send her a card.
Integrate rituals of gratitude into family life.
Going to church services, sharing Friday-night Shabbat dinner, or saying a prayer before you eat all encourage families to connect and acknowledge how much they have. Weekly walks through a nature reserve can also help kids learn to appreciate the environment.
Indulge them with less.
In the face of peer pressure and the ever-increasing influence of the media, it’s certainly tough to fight the urge to give, give, give. “Your goal is to respect your child’s desire for stuff without caving in to his demands,” says Dr. Mogel. When your son begs for the purple slime his best friend has, you might say, “That sounds really cool, but we’re not going to get it.” There’s no need to give complex explanations. Also, rethink your own reasons for showering your kids with gifts. Instead of making a trip to the toy store to reward good behavior, why not head out to a park or spend an hour playing with him?
Teach manners early.
Good manners are the most literal way of showing appreciation and respect for others. And it’s never too early to teach them. “It’s true that younger children can’t comprehend the concept of gratitude because they are self-centered,” explains Dr. Erickson. But it’s important for children to go through the motions and learn the whys later. You can encourage a child as young as 2 to say please and thank you, says Bonnie Rubinstein, director of Early Childhood Education at Temple Shalom Preschool, in Dallas. As kids get older, teach them to greet a playdate or family friends at the door and to see them off when they leave.
Give them chores.
A 1-year-old can help you toss toys into a basket when playtime is over. Two-year-olds can carry a plastic dish from the kitchen table. By 3, children can begin to make their beds with help and put their clothes in the hamper. Lightening your own load is not the only point of asking kids to do chores—in fact, it may be easier to do it all yourself. But you’re teaching your children what it takes to keep a household running. “Only by sharing responsibilities does a child understand what goes into these tasks and learn to appreciate what her parents do,” says Dr. Erickson.
These books help cultivate a sense of gratitude in kids.
All the Places to Love, by Patricia MacLachlan (ages 4 to 8). As he grows, baby Eli learns to value the people and places in his life, eventually sharing what he has discovered with his new little sister.
Feeling Thankful, by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly, Ed.D. (ages 3 to 9). This book inspires kids to think about all they have to be grateful for—from their ability to paint a picture to their favorite possessions.
Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message, by Jake Swamp and Erwin Printup Jr. (ages 4 to 8). Based on the ancient Iroquois Thanksgiving Address, this simple book offers thanks for all of the world’s many gifts.
Copyright©: 2005. Reprinted with permission from the August 2005 issue of Parents magazine.
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August 1, 2005