Q. How do you encourage gratitude in your children when they receive gifts? Mine just tear into them and could care less where they came from. I feel the cold stares from my family members when they are not acknowledged, or I have to tell my kids to say thank you. They’re old enough to know better.
A. Expression of gratitude is not to be expected in the early years of naturally egocentric development—generally before six or seven. The egocentric stage means they are not cognitively able to step out of their own spere to see and comprehend how someone else experiences life. Consideration for someone’s else’s feelings is often expected way too early. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to tell them how you feel and validate their feelings when expressed. But to say, How do you think your friend would feel if you grabbed a toy from him? in an effort to teach kindness, will only feel like blame to your under six child and could set her back even further in self-protective mode.
When your children are self-absorbed ripping open presents, instead of harping on them to say thank you, you do it. Tell Aunt Clara how much you appreciate the gift to your child being as specific as you can. After gifts are opened, you can take your child aside and say, Can you think of something you’d like to say to Aunt Clara? If it’s clear your child didn’t like the gift, say, You can always tell me how you really feel. Even so Aunt Clara took time to get it for you.
Validate your child’s feelings, not the behavior. And don’t take the behavior personally. This is the work.
It looked to me as though you really didn’t like that gift I got you. It’s disappointing when you expect something you want and don’t get it. Bummer. That will help your child feel understood—the only place from which he can change his attitude.
Raising children who naturally show gratitude starts when they are born. Do you mirror your awe and delight for your baby? Do you tell your little children how happy you are to see them? Do you say please and thank you long before you expect it from them? Do you tell them how much you appreciate even the smallest gestures of love and care?
The irony is that when you expect your children to show appreciation—in other words when your button gets pushed because they don’t, and you react anywhere from guilt-tripping to blowing up—they will only get defensive, and you will never see it.
Don’t ask for it. The “After all I’ve done for you, why can’t you do one thing for me?” approach merely lays on guilt and creats more resistance. The “Do you realize how good you’ve got it” approach assumes that your children are able to compare their lives to yours or to others who have very little. First, they are not capable of that perspective when they are young, and second, why should they be asked to be grateful for the only experiences they know? It takes maturity to understand and compare one’s life to another’s.
What TO do to encourage gratitude
- MODEL. Always say please and thank you to your children, spouse and others.
- When your child asks for or demands something, wait for the please or give a reminder in a light-hearted way.
- Anytime your child does anything helpful, point it out. “I really appreciate it when you bring your plate to the sink. It helps me with my job.” “I bet your sister felt really good when you gave her a hug when she was feeling bad.” “Thank you for putting your puzzles away.”
- Let your children hear you talking about how grateful or appreciative you are toward others. Let them see you writing a note to someone or hear you expressing it.
- At the dinner table, take turns offering something you feel grateful for and also something you didn’t like. Ask each person how they helped someone that day and who helped them with something.
- Understand that a child’s disappointment or anger in the moment will trump any consideration for another. Ingratitude is likely a defense against hurt feelings.
- When your kids are old enough to write, expect thank you notes for gifts. Make it fun so it’s not a chore. Before that, ask your child to dictate a letter to you. Ask, “What would you like to say to grandma about the puzzle? Do you like playing with it? What’s your favorite part? Let’s tell her about it.”
- When holidays and birthdays roll around, encourage young children to offer a gift of themselves: A drawing, a private dance performance, a special stone found on a walk or a trip, a loved but no longer wanted toy, a dictated story about the person, a stick found in the shape of the person’s initial.
- When older, take your child to buy a gift for a friend or family member. There is no more powerful learning than seeing someone’s face light up when you give a present you have put thought into.
- Tweens and teens can be expected to spend some of their allowance on buying gifts for immediate family.
- Be sure and open gifts together, one at a time, and show gratitude. Never demand it. Wait until the opening is over to talk about who gave what to whom.
When we get older, we learn how to lie by expressing gratitude for something we don’t like because we want someone to like us, feel acknowledged, offer gratitude. But childhood is no time to start teaching that.
Like respect, gratitude is a feeling that cannot be taught, only experienced. You can remind your children that they might be feeling gratitude, you can show them ways to express gratitude, but you can’t teach them to feel it if you have not modeled it.
Remember children want what they want when they want it. That’s normal. It takes maturity to understand that other people’s wishes and concerns are as important as their own.
Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With can help you shift your perspective of your child and his behavior so that your anger can shift to compassion and understanding — frustration probably; annoyance undoubtedly, but much less anger.