How parents can teach their kids gratitude at an early age

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How parents can teach their kids gratitude at an early age

If you knew me and found me to be polite or appreciative, then you’d have my mother to thank.

My mom drilled gratitude into my wiring. It began with how she showed appreciation to everyone from the waiter who brought her an extra side of marinara sauce to my dad who worked hard to take care of us financially, and it ended with how she expected me and my sisters to be thankful for all that we had and all that she and our father did for us.

As parents there are definitely some personality traits in our children that are beyond our control, but showing appreciation and being grateful are behaviors that we can cultivate.

Working with kids (and thus their parents) for many years, I’ve seen first hand how parents directly influence the level of their kids’ gratitude. When I’m passing out pompons to ten students during a dance class, there are always the same one or two students who say, thank you. Those same one or two students also thank me as they exit my class, and I can hear their parents greet them just outside the classroom door with, "Did you thank the teacher?" Then those same parents thank me themselves as I walk out of the classroom.

I put a lot of effort into teaching and it feels nice to be appreciated. So how do we teach our kids to feel thankful and show gratitude?

1. Model good behavior

How you treat the people who are helping you (wait-staff, postal workers, even your notoriously unreliable cable customer service rep) is how your kids will treat the people helping them – including you.

How you appreciate your parenting partner is how your kids will appreciate your parenting partner, and how your kids will seek to appreciate their own partner one day.

And how thankful you are to those who are caring for your child (babysitters, daycare workers, teachers, family members) tells your child everything she needs to know about how to thank those caregivers.

2. Make gratitude a habit

If you asked our kids what phrases my husband and I say the most, they’d probably answer, "I love you so much," "Let me drink my coffee first," and "What do you say?"

Even our three-year-old knows that the correct answer to the last question is usually "please" or "thank you." A few days ago I said, "You just hit your sister. What do you say?" He answered, "Thank you."

Our parents drilled it into us and we are drilling it into our kids. Make saying "please" and "thank you" a habit. They are such simple phrases with such a meaningful impact on how we feel toward those who are helping us and how we make those people feel.

And, of course, having our kids send thank you cards for gifts is a must in teaching gratitude. (I say this as a woman who still owes thank you cards for her kids’ birthday party in February of this year...and last year, which I feel terrible about because my mother taught me better than that.)

3. Teach earning versus getting

Several of my friends are college professors and they lament the self-entitlement of some of their students. It’s troubling that a nineteen year-old expects to pass a class he barely attended when even a toddler can grasp the concept of earning versus getting.

If your child wants to watch his favorite television show, eat a dessert or get a new toy, he has to earn it by good behavior, extra chores or a lemonade/art stand (my daughter’s idea that we haven’t put into practice yet).

If we can curb impulse buying for our kids and stop rewarding them when they don’t deserve it, we’ll be one big step closer to teaching our kids the immense satisfaction of earning what they receive.

4. Expect gratitude

On occasion in the dance world, I’ve seen teenagers treat their moms like servants. "I told you to order my costume." "Why are you late?!" "I want lunch."

Because these moms are compassionate and they know their child is stressed, or tired, or hungry, they sometimes let ungrateful behavior go unchecked.

Of course your kids aren’t going to appreciate every little thing you do in your job description as their parent (at least not until they are parents themselves), but there are things you don’t have to do if your kid can’t show you a little gratitude. You don’t have to take them to extracurricular activities, or let them have a friend over, or buy them their favorite dinner.

It’s good to expect your kids to thank you and appreciate what you do for them.

5. Teach charity

My mom would help us go through our clothes and toys, then she’d take us with her to drop off our donations to the Salvation Army. During the holidays she’d get a wish list for a family in need and take us shopping to pick out gifts for the kids. She’d take us with her when she did fundraisers for a local camp for kids with special needs.

I honestly don’t remember a whole heck of lot about my childhood, but I remember all of those things. I remember how it made me feel to know that there were kids who didn’t have the opportunities I had.

Remind your children with words and deeds that they are lucky, and that with that luck comes a responsibility to help others.

6. Teach an appreciation of things we can’t hold

It’s not just physical items that deserve appreciation, and I learned this the hard way. When I was in third grade, an adult gave me a toy that was a little young for me. My mouth said "thank you", but my face didn’t say "thank you". My mom made me feel guilty about that in a way that has stayed with me for thirty years.

It’s not like it took a lot to make me feel ashamed. Mom just pointed out the truth. Someone took the time to go to a store (this was pre-internet), buy me a gift, wrap it, and bring it to me, and I couldn’t even be bothered to pretend to like it. I should at the least appreciate the effort even if I didn’t love the gift.

When we point out to kids the effort that people took to come visit us, or the time they gave to show us something, or an act of kindness they displayed, we’re teaching them to see gifts as more than toys they can play with.

7. Give nightly thanks

Even if you don’t practice a particular religion, you can give a "prayer of thanks" or keep a gratitude journal (even if it’s just verbal) each night. Talk about your child’s favorite part of the day. Express your thanks for the people and events in your life. Talk about how grateful you are for having your needs met (food, housing, love, friendships). It’s good to remind ourselves and our kids to be grateful for the basics, and, of course, for each other, and for moms who teach us the power of appreciating what we have.