on Teaching Gratitude to Children

by Shirelle on January 16, 2012

Hi Dads!

I am so thrilled and excited to be here with you all, and to be able to write for HeadsUpDad.

In fact, I feel so grateful about it that I think I’d like to write about Gratitude. Gratitude and Appreciation are enormously important qualities for parents to instill in their kids, but most often all that folks can manage to teach them is polite manners. And while it’s nice to see a kid say “Thanks” when someone passes him the butter, that’s not exactly what I mean here. This is especially true today, because parents don’t spend as much effort teaching polite behavior as they once did.  But your grandparents probably didn’t care too much about how deeply their kids felt appreciation – they just washed your parents’ mouths out with soap if they happened to not use the right words at the right times! No, this generation really tends to care a lot more about teaching values, rather than just prescribed behavior. But the problem is, how can anyone teach that?! The crazy answer is – you really can’t. Kids are kids, and there’s a certain level of unthinking selfishness that just comes with the territory (along with incredible sweetness, as you know). And if little Julie finds exactly what she wanted under her Christmas tree, she’s going to be a lot more interested in the immediate joy of playing with it than she is in the deeper pleasure of writing a beautiful thank you letter for it!

Your job, since you can’t really teach gratitude, is to help foster a growth of that sense for when the child matures.

Here are a few suggestions on how to do just that:

1. Teach by example.

Papas, you’ll hear me say this one over and over and over.  About 90% of what kids learn from their parents comes from observation (which is, of course, how kids manage to learn to walk and talk, two of the most astounding achievements of any human’s life).  If you live with a sense of gratitude, your children will pick up on that. When your babysitter makes the kids dinner because you forgot to leave something in the fridge, do you just accept that, or really thank her for going the extra mile?  When someone in traffic lets you cut in, do you give a ‘thank you’ wave?  Your kid will see what you do, and learn from it.  And even more importantly, do you show gratitude to your kid when they do something kind?  That’s the best lesson of all.

2. Talk about Gratitude when it is expressed by others.

When you throw a poker party for some buddies, and one of them emails you the next morning to thank you for it, mention to your kid how good that made you feel.

3. Let them help you with acts of gratefulness.

I know this is a bit phony, but it’s still good:  Let’s say you want to send out a bunch of letters thanking people who’ve helped you in your work this year.  Have your kid stuff the envelopes or put the stamps on.  They’ll get the idea that thank you letters are what cool grownups like Daddy do.

4. Apologize when you forget to be grateful yourself.

All humans make mistakes, and there will always be times when you forget to thank someone, or even to feel as grateful as you should. Let your child see you catch yourself in that error. And let them see you apologize and try to make up for it. That’s a huge teacher.

5. Teach them gratitude by rote.

Okay, and the boring one: Yes, I’m saying that you should teach your ungrateful little brats to say “Thank You” for getting the butter passed to them, and to write letters thanking Aunt Martha for the boring book she gave them, and even to thank their teacher for giving them extra homework to help them master something they’re having trouble with in school.  No, they won’t feel the gratitude at all.  But they will learn the right ways and times to express it when they do.

And then, I also want to add a big “Don’t” to this list.  Do Not Guilt Trip!  Children live in a world that’s all about themselves.  They’ll grow out of it, and you should encourage that, but don’t make them feel bad for not being there yet.  Telling them things like “You ought to feel more grateful” or “You’re too self-centered,” or worst of all “You’re spoiled, you got too many presents” don’t teach Gratitude; they teach Shame, which is the total opposite (If you really feel your kid got too many presents for her birthday, then be the adult and tell her there’s simply been a mistake, and she needs to give five of her toys to others.  It’s not her fault!).

Then, of course, the best role model any kid can ever have for Gratitude is one of us!  We dogs will show how much we appreciate every treat, every scratch on the head, and every time you let us in the house – every time!  And oh do we let you know we appreciate you humans when you come home from school or work!  And the more that your kid sees us do that, and senses how much they love the way our gratitude makes them feel (yes I’m emphasizing that thought!), the sooner they’ll develop a healthy sense of empathy, which will lead them to the true sense of gratitude you want them to own.

So those are my thoughts. Good luck with them. And in the meantime, from the bottom of my heart…

Thanks for reading!

 

About the author:

Shirelle is a busy dog. In between her posts from the Dog House at HeadsUpDad, she hosts a great web site offering friendly, down-to-earth advice for kids, teens, and parents called AskShirelle. Please check it out.

 

 

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