“Thank you for making dinner, Momma.”
“Thank you for my new toy.”
“Thank you for reading to me.”
“Bee, thanks for the balloon. Thanks for getting my favorite color.”
When I hear my boys say these things, unprompted by me, I feel…well…thankful. I am grateful that they are starting to appreciate what they have and what others do for them and to recognize that expressing their gratitude to others is kind and important. I’m grateful that something we’re doing must be paying off.
So, just how do parents raise grateful children? I’m not an expert on gratitude, but I am sure that appreciation is not taught with a single, mind-changing lesson. Rather, the lessons are in the every day. And it isn’t just about teaching appreciation for things. Appreciating experiences and other people are important too. Here are 11 ways to raise a grateful child.
1. Tell him thank you. – Much like “give respect to be respected,” children learn to appreciate by being appreciated. Thank your child for clearing the table, for playing nicely with his little sister, for waiting patiently while you finish a phone call. Thank him for just being a downright awesome kid. Show him how it feels to be appreciated and have his effort recognized, what it gratitude sounds like, and how easily it can be a part of daily life.
2. Let him hear you thank others. – Our children learn so much by watching us. We can tell our kids to be grateful, but showing them what that means is so much more powerful. Point out the kind thing a neighbor or even a stranger did, and express how much you appreciate it. Tell your spouse thank you, for making dinner, for helping with baths, for being a great parent. Let your kids hear you express appreciation for these things that are so easy to take for granted.
3. Don’t give her everything she wants. – Is it cliche to say that kids who have everything will appreciate nothing? When Zip was a preschooler, I worried about him having a serious case of the gimmes. Maybe it was just his age, but I have to think that my tendency to bring home little gifts “just because” and indulge his every wish when we went shopping was part of the problem. We made a conscious effort to scale back – a lot – and I noticed a big improvement in his appreciation for the things we did give him.
4. Give her the things she needs, and provide her with opportunities to earn the things she wants. – Earning can take many forms, like a reward for accomplishing a certain goal or an allowance for chores. Even if you don’t want to tie an allowance to chores, the simple expectation that kids use their own money buy “extras” helps them to understand that many experiences and things require someone’s hard work. (When my boys ask for something at the store, I often ask if they are willing to spend their own money. If the answer is no, my response is usually that if it isn’t something they want badly enough to spend their own money on, they shouldn’t expect me to spend my money on it.)
5. Keep rewards reasonable. It doesn’t take much to make kids happy, but when they constantly receive big rewards we are setting them up to think big is a way of life. A 50 cent allowance for a kindergartner is enough. When kids are potty training, stickers or M&Ms do the trick. They don’t need a new toy every time they poop or $10 a week. Save the big stuff – video games, a trip to the amusement park – for special occasions or celebrating really big accomplishments, so that it holds its value.
6. Call her out when she is unappreciative. – This doesn’t mean lecture the poor kid about how ungrateful she is, of course, but gently let her know, “Hey, you’re really taking this for granted and it’s not okay.” We’ve run into this at dinnertime a lot. If the boys moan and groan about what we’ve served for dinner, our response is something along the lines of, “I think what you mean to say is ‘Thank you, Daddy, for taking the time to cook us dinner tonight.'” This usually stops them in their tracks. It lets them know they can appreciate the work that goes into making dinner, whether or not they like what’s on their plates!
7. Give back. – There are so many ways to give back to our community and to those in need. Rather than doing this solo, involve the kids and talk about what you are doing. Together, select a toy for Toys for Tots. Volunteer to help your local food bank with gleaning. Make care packages for the local homeless shelter. Encourage your child to put a small part of her allowance in the Salvation Army kettles in December. Participate in a walk-for-a-cause.
8. Help your child see the need around her. – Need can come in so many forms. No matter your family’s situation, you can likely find examples in your community of people in greater need. Talk about why the Toys for Tots boxes are placed around town at the holidays. Point out the food bank when you drive by and talk about why it exists. As you tuck your child in at night, talk about how some children are not so lucky to have warm beds and a fridge full of food. If those things are a struggle for your family, help your child appreciate being healthy and loved. Those things seem so basic, but they are worth appreciating!
9. Teach your child about developing countries. Not in a “Woe are the poor people in those other countries” kind of way, but in a more specific way. Talk about how some countries do not have clean drinking water or medicines available. Find examples in the news or books to share with your kids. Sponsor a child through Food for the Hungry and have your child exchange letters with her, and talk about why your sponsorship is important. Help your child to recognize that there is a world beyond her own.
10. Incorporate daily gratitudes into your family’s routine. Whether it is part of your dinnertime routine, bedtime, or some sort of gratitude journal, encourage your child to find things to be thankful for every day. Help him to notice the little things that we so often take for granted.
11. Write thank you notes. Good ol’ fashioned thank you notes. They are more than a polite formality. They can also help children to realize that the fact a person gave them a gift or came to their party or did something especially nice for them is worth being recognized and acknowledged.
What do you do, to encourage gratitude and appreciation in your children?