Teaching Kids Gratitude

Annie The Nanny

Annie The Nanny

Annie the Nanny is a professional parenting educator. Her advice is regularly featured on CTV, CBC and in all kinds of print and online media. For more information about Annie, please go to her 'about' page.

teaching kids gratitudeTeaching kids gratitude makes the world go round

All parents hope they will create appreciative children. So when it comes to teaching kids gratitude, let’s face it: nobody wants their child to be the one grabbing their birthday presents in a frenzy, shoving whatever lovely and thoughtful gift they just got aside in a desperate bid to get their sticky paws on the next one.

Nobody wants to deal with a child who, when given an ice cream by your friends, complains about the size for the rest of the afternoon. When kids behave like this, it’s embarrassing, and it’s the kind of thing that makes any parent want to crawl under the floor. After all, having gratitude makes people feel good, and we all want our children to learn that making other people feel good is just a nice thing to do. We also want them to take notice of the time and effort that somebody else put into making or finding the right gift or doing whatever other nice thing it was they did for them.

Children need to be taught gratefulness 

However, people are also humans, and sometimes, despite our best intentions, gratitude gets less attention on the list of pleasant attributes than it deserves. Then suddenly, you get a wake-up call. Imagine you’ve just finished a lovely birthday party, worked your tail off, and your four-year-old suddenly throws off her princess dress and tiara and yells, “But I wanted the fairy party instead!” Would you nod your head in understanding, or would you want to take the cake and shove the remainder over her ungrateful head?

Teaching gratitude takes time

All events come with heightened expectations, and it’s when those expectations are suddenly dashed that teaching gratitude once again shows up on the parental radar. Parents are often full of renewed enthusiasm, but human nature being what it is, it’s easy for the urgency to fade. That’s why it’s important to remember that teaching gratitude isn’t something you can accomplish in a day or two. It’s a long-term thing, and it is something we need to teach over and over again. So with that in mind, how should you go about doing it?

The specifics of teaching kids gratitude

The first thing to understand is that gratitude, especially when we’re talking about gifts, comes from empathy. You can’t appreciate something if you don’t know what someone had to do to get it or give it to you. You see, when you’re three, you simply don’t realize what a present represents.

Teaching kids gratitude: Children have to learn to put themselves in another’s shoes

Let’s think about that for a moment. When it comes to giving a present, first you have to figure out what whoever you’re giving the present to might like. To do that, you have to find out about that person. Do they like gardening? Do they like crafts? Are they into being pampered?

Then you have to put yourself in their shoes to figure out what might be useful or nice for them. To do that, you have to be empathic. The dictionary describes being empathetic as “the psychological identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of others.” Perhaps your potential gift recipient likes being pampered. Ok, so what feels nice? How about a gift certificate to have their nails done or a nice cushion for their neck in the bath?

Concentrate on teaching awareness

Children don’t understand innately how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, so they need to be taught. The only way to do that is to show them, and we do that by teaching them to be aware.

So start pointing out how other people are feeling. If you see the next-door neighbour struggling to mow the lawn with her bad hip, point out her grimacing face and then go outside with your child and take over. Give your child a bag for the leaves, and you’ll make an even bigger impression. Once you’re done, let your neighbour express her natural appreciation for your child. The more children feel good about helping others, the more they’ll want to help, and the more appreciative they’ll be when you help them because they’ll know what’s involved.

Pointing out people’s feelings creates empathy

Teaching awareness has lots of great offshoots too, because suddenly they might start noticing how you feel. That’s a big bonus. It’s the best present you’ll get when your child starts seeing you as someone with feelings of their own. When you’re feeling like a wreck and need a few minutes off your feet, your child notices and says, “Oh, mommy, you look tired. Sit down.” Such a comment can make you feel gooey all over with love, even if it only lasts for 5 seconds before they ask you why you aren’t making dinner.

Last but not least, to get your child to appreciate things and be grateful, make sure you show appreciation and are grateful for things yourself. Model appreciation by taking your time over your presents, acknowledging the effort, and stopping to thank people for their thoughtfulness. Expect the same from your children. Yes, I know people consider handwritten notes out of date, but getting a child to write, type, or make a short email or phone call to express their gratitude goes a long way. It also teaches a habit that will stay with your child and be passed down the generations as an important value.

Teaching gratitude also has a wonderful spillover effect. You see, children start to notice not just the big things but all the little things too. Children are naturally appreciative of the wonders of life, but over time they become jaded because there is so much that competes for their attention. Our job is to keep those fires of appreciation burning.

Would you like to know the key to creating resilient children? Check out ‘A Parent’s Guide To Building Resilience’

Do you know why child-centered parenting doesn’t work?  

For more parenting advice and for help with your children, see my parenting services page.

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