Growing up in the south saying “please” and “thank you” was an expectation in many families, including my own. When we were told to say “thank you” as a young child it did not seem genuine to me. Just a phrase I automatically said. When we force the “thank you” we are asking our children to fake joy over gifts they receive that they may or may not like. Instead, model by thanking someone for them and eventually they will get the hint. For young children it can be tricky as they are self-centered throughout their early years and tend to only think of themselves and not others. It’s is an important concept to teach however and adults can do so in many ways. Saying things like “I really appreciated it when you set the table”, or “we are so lucky to have a dog like spot” will show your kids that you notice and are thankful. Being grateful for the everyday, simple things is a great way to teach appreciation, empathy and compassion.
The goal is to see the world through grateful eyes. Doing so creates an attitude of doing good deeds just because, with a pay-it-forward attitude. When my boys were younger, we would ask them to tell us 1-2 things that they were grateful for that day. You have to be willing to accept their answers because it is what they are grateful for (extra five minutes on the playground; playing with the red truck) versus what you think they should be grateful for (nutritious lunch you packed; new shirt you bought them; rides to school versus the bus). Parents can’t ask kids to be grateful. Being grateful is an attitude and a feeling. Saying “thank you” for a gift is one thing but no matter how hard we try we cannot make them feel grateful. That is on them. Kids don’t learn this through their parents complaining that they were ungrateful when they didn’t express gratitude. They learned to be grateful through watching the important adults in their lives be appreciative and thankful, volunteering in the community for different charities, and donating toys and clothes no longer wanted or needed to a family that needed extra support. Pets can also provide children a wonderful lesson on being grateful as they show us their unconditional gratitude constantly throughout their life.
I was always more appreciative and grateful for experiences versus gifts. As an adult, I can remember many of the experiences we did as a family versus the gifts we received (except the “tickle me elmo”. I remember that like it was yesterday and was very grateful for that gift).
As my kids are getting older and heading to college and busy with their own lives I will occasionally text them pictures of things I am grateful for: my family, friends and pets. Eventually they will do the same, not because I ask them to but because it will make them feel good about themselves and the life they live.
Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician Instructor
Michigan State University Extension