HarvardHomemaker

By HarvardHomemaker

I'm a Harvard graduate and homemaker who blogs about living (and loving!) the domestic life with my husband and four young daughters. My blog now permanently resides at www.harvardhomemaker.com. Please visit me there!

Posted on Wednesday, December 18, 2013 at 03:17:00 PM in Mom Stuff
Tags: birthday,  christmas,  gift ideas,  kids,  kindergarten,  preschool,  mom stuff,  mom tips,  parenting,  family,  thanksgiving

10 Thoughts on How to Raise Grateful Children

If you are reading this, you have access to the internet.  That already makes you more privileged than most people in the world.  At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.  Almost half the world (over three billion people) live on less than $2.50 a day (source).  By all accounts, we are a lucky bunch... a very lucky bunch.   

And so are our children.

As parents, we are constantly trying to instill thankfulness in our children.  This is no easy task, especially since kids are wired to be egocentric.  It can be hard for them to think outside themselves.  It's not really their fault, then, that their thoughts naturally center around receiving rather than giving.  And this time of year, the gimme-gimme-gimme attitude is on hyperdrive as kids make wish lists for everything their little hearts desire.

So how do we teach our children to be grateful for what they have?  

 

1.  START YOUNG

It is never too early to start teaching your child to say thank you.  Our babies understand much more than we give them credit for; they simply aren't capable of verbalizing a response.  Hence, the boom in baby sign language in recent times to encourage communication and (in theory), to reduce frustration and fussiness in your child.  

{Find a book about Baby Sign Language here.  For us, we simply taught our girls these four signs:  milk, more, eat, and thank you.  Just those few signs were so helpful in allowing them to communicate with us!  We started showing them the signs when they were about 6 months old.  By 8-12 months old, they began signing back.  Please keep in mind that all children learn at different rates, and how quickly they catch on may also depend on how often you demonstrate the signs.}

Our oldest daughter started saying "thank you" in sign language around the age of 12 months, and I remember her still using the sign up until age three or so, well past the time she could have spoken the words.  We would ask her to say thank you, and she would make the sign.  We'd then correct her:  "No.  SAY, 'Thank you.'"  And she would look at us with annoyance and then do the sign again.  She had been expressing her gratitude through sign language for so long, it was truly how you said "thank you" in her mind.  

So when you hand your baby a sippy cup, food, a toy, anything... say, "Thank you, Mommy (or Daddy)!" so he/she begins to associate those words with the receipt of something.  You could also do the sign simultaneously (touch your open hand to your chin, and then pull your hand away).  Surprisingly, my youngest daughter formed a habit of thanking us for just about everything, probably because she was constantly listening to the rest of us and learning to mimic our speech.  The video below captures her saying "thank you" spontaneously after I handed her some raisins.  She's only 20 months old in the clip.  

The point is to encourage a simple "thank you"  from the very beginning, regardless of your child's verbal skills.   It will become ingrained in your child's head more quickly than you could ever imagine, and soon enough, saying the words (either via sign language or verbally) will be a habit.  I doubt my toddler really knows what "thank you" means as she's saying it, but she does understand that those are the words you use when someone gives you something... and that's a good place to start.

 

Encourage Toddlers to Say Thank You - YouTube

To help instill thankfulness in your children, it's never too early to start encouraging a simple "thank you" so it becomes a habit. This can be done with si...

2. LEAD BY EXAMPLE

Our children are always watching us, whether we realize it or not.  Think about that the next time you open a gift with your child nearby and utter complaints about how awful it is, how you received that the year before, how your size is never right, etc.  And don't be surprised when your child then opens something in front of everyone at her next birthday party and declares for all to hear, "I don't even like this!!"

Obviously we all receive things on occasion that are a miss, but before you automatically complain, perhaps your child can hear you say something like this instead:  "That was so sweet of them to think of me.  They took time out of their day to make sure I felt special, and I'm so appreciative of their thoughtfulness.  Wasn't that nice?"  (By asking a question, it makes your child consider his/her own opinion on the matter.)  

I don't think you need to pretend it was the greatest gift of all time (especially when your child knows you are allergic to nuts and you receive nut bread, for example), but making fun of the gift (and ultimately, the gift-giver) is just plain mean when you really think about it.  Someone is trying to do something nice for you, so you might want to focus on that message instead of the gift itself.  How do you expect your child to feel and act grateful when you might not be demonstrating that yourself some of the time?

It's also nice for your child to see you bringing food or a little token of appreciation if your family has dinner at someone's house; make sure you always say thank you yourself; even give a small wave to the person who lets you into a line while driving.  Your children see all of these things.  The saying below captures it all:  "Your children will become who you are; so be the person you want them to be."

3. WRITE THANK YOU NOTES

Call me old-fashioned, but I am still a huge believer in the written thank you note.  I blame (credit) my mother for this; my brothers and I were expected to send a prompt and well-written thank you note every time we received a gift of any kind.  We really weren't supposed to use our new gift until a note of thanks had been written, so it wasn't uncommon for us to have our thank you notes done on Christmas Day!  Santa even brought some cards for us every year in our stockings.  (Find some cute personalized holiday notes for girls here and for boys here.)

Now that I have my own children, I have taken over the role of "Thank You Note Police" from my mom.  On Halloween when I was asking my kids if they were remembering to say thank you, our friends were joking that they were surprised we didn't have pre-written notes ready to pass out in exchange for the candy at each house.  :)  (I can think of worse reputations for a family to have!)

Your kids will surely whine at times about having to write notes (it can be a lot of work!), but just remind them that someone took time to think about them, shop (or make something) for them, wrap that gift, sometimes ship that gift, and so on.  The least we can do is take a few minutes to properly thank them for their kindness.  Writing out words of thanks also forces your child to consider the good deed for more than the brief moment when it's first received.

THANK YOU NOTE TIPS

I would suggest that you start young with this as well so it becomes a habit.  Don't just write the notes for your children.  This isn't instilling any gratefulness; try to get them involved.  If your child can hold a crayon, he/she can participate.  Some ideas:

- Let your toddler scribble on a note you write on his/her behalf.

- Stamp hands or feet on the notes and explain to your child that you're sending the cards to say thank you for the nice gifts.

- When capable, have your child trace some words you write lightly, such as "Thank You" or his/her own name.  

- Have your child sign his/her own name as soon as possible.

- Have your child draw one really nice picture and then photocopy it.  You can write the note to each person on the back.  (It can be a lot to ask them to write or draw too many things; they just don't have the attention span.)

- Use fill-in-the-blank notes for children who are learning to write but don't have the ability (or the focus) to sit and write in complete sentences.  This is a great way to transition them into writing their own notes!  (Find some here for Christmas; here for a girl's birthday; and here for a boy's birthday.)  I'm a huge fan of these!!  I even made my own years ago (see photo below) where my kids not only filled in their note of thanks but they colored in the cards as well.

- Show some patience.  You may need to allow young children a week or more to work on their notes once they're able to write independently.  They will tire quickly; writing is hard work.

- When you are giving teacher gifts, don't simply do everything yourself.  You can write a note, buy the gift, etc. but it's also nice when the student (your child) draws a picture or writes a note as well to show their gratitude personally.  Our girls each made their kindergarten teacher a "book" at the end of their school year, and he told me he has kept each one of them.  Sometimes it's those small gestures that mean the most.

- Teach older children how to write a proper note.  Scribbling "Thank you for the gift" and signing their name really doesn't cut it.  Make sure they specify what was received and say something nice about the gift or how it will be used.

- Lead by example by writing your own thank you notes for gifts you receive. 

When showing your thanks with a written note is part of regular life, it won't feel like such a chore after a while.  It will feel routine.  It's not uncommon now for someone to do something nice for one of our kids, and I will find her writing a thank you note or drawing a picture for that person without being prompted.  It's such a good feeling to see our daughters feeling the need to express their gratitude on their own, because someday my husband and I won't be there to guide them.

FILL-IN-THE-BLANK CARDS:  A GREAT WAY TO HELP KIDS WRITE THEIR OWN THANK YOU NOTES WITHOUT HELP FROM YOU

GET YOUR CHILD HIS/HER OWN STATIONERY

If your child has fun stationery that's solely for him/her, it might seem more tolerable (perhaps even somewhat enjoyable?!) to write thank you notes.  When I am looking for personalized note cards (or holiday cards, birth announcements, party invitations, etc. for that matter!) I always use Minted or Tiny Prints.  They are my two favorites, hands-down.  Minted is probably at the very tippy-top.  While the options are virtually endless at both sites, I shared a couple that I thought were cute below (click on the image to see where you can find that style):

4. DON'T BUY GOOD BEHAVIOR

We've all done it... the BRIBE:  "Johnny, if you're good, you can have a lollipop."  It typically works, and I'm not ashamed to say that I have used this tactic more times than I can count.  In many ways, I've decided that figuring out how to be a better negotiator is the key to staying sane while raising children.  But it can be a slippery slope.  If your child becomes accustomed to getting a THING for good behavior, where is the motivation to behave simply because that's what good kids do?

Rather than buying your child a toy or candy every single time he/she makes it through the grocery store without going completely bananas (you might want to read this post for all the reasons why I now buy my groceries online to avoid this situation entirely!), perhaps you can reward the behavior in other ways.  Some ideas:

- Promise to arrange a playdate

- Throw your child up in the air or on the bed 10 times (my little ones always picked this option!)

- Read an extra book at bedtime

- Do the silliest dance ever for their entertainment (my older ones typically pick this option, and they howl like crazy... especially when my husband does the dancing!)

- Have a picnic lunch in your backyard

- Let them watch a movie

- Bake cookies

Promise anything your children like to DO, not something they want to HAVE.  I know kids typically respond well to being rewarded for good behavior, and I'm all for it; but that doesn't necessarily mean you have to BUY them something every time.  If your children are able to wave a magic wand and something they want suddenly appears in their hands without a second thought, receiving a gift is no longer even that special.  How are kids going to appreciate all they have when they are constantly replacing those things with something new? 

Organize-It Your Storage and Organization Resource

5. SHOW THEM THE JOY OF GIVING

This time of year, kids are understandably focused on themselves and everything they're hoping to find under the tree not too long from now.  But this is also a perfect time to show them how great it can be to give rather than to receive.

If you typically buy gifts for your kids to give one another, wrap them up, and even sign the names on their behalf, they aren't able to feel the joy of giving.  (Or maybe your kids don't give gifts at all.)  We started a new tradition about 5 years ago where the whole family heads over to Target just before Christmas.  The kids empty their piggy banks, and we split into two groups:  two girls are with me, two are with my husband.   The girls do their shopping for each member of the family, and we keep switching groups until everybody has been able to buy something in secret.  Sometimes they even combine their money so they can get someone a bigger gift, so there's also a lesson about money mixed in.  (It's so funny if we happen to pass one another in the store:  "Nothing to see here... just keep moving along... do not look in this cart, whatever you do!")  

We then head home and the girls wrap things up for their sisters and for my husband and me.  They are always so excited about what they've chosen, and without fail, those are the first gifts they want to open every year on Christmas morning.  It's so sweet to see them feeling the joy of giving.  Love this new tradition!  

If your kids don't have a few dollars to spend on each family member, perhaps you can work with them to make a craft, draw a picture, or bake something.  I would definitely encourage you to carve out a bit of time to help them see what it feels like to give something they're proud to share!  Last year I realized a few days before Christmas that my 10-month-old had no gifts for her sisters even though they had each proudly chosen something for her, so she helped me make this:  Best Sisters Ever, Hands Down! Handprint Art.  It was a hit!  There was a lot of hugging going on after opening that one, and that gift allowed her to be a part of the gift-giving, too.  :)

6. HELP THEM UNDERSTAND THAT THERE ARE THOSE LESS FORTUNATE

No matter how little we have, there is always someone who has less.   There are needs and wants, and as long as all of our needs are met, the rest is all a bonus!  We adults are well aware of this (although sometimes, myself included, we could use a little reminder), but our children focus more on their "wants" because we parents take care of their needs for them.  Every now and then, I think it's great to help your children realize how lucky they are.

So when/if your family sponsors a child from the Giving Tree this year, perhaps your kids can help you do the shopping and/or the wrapping.  Use that time to talk about all that you have and why you should be grateful for your blessings.  Throughout the year, have your children help you go through their clothes, toys, etc. (try not to do it entirely without them) and explain that the things you both decide to set aside will help families who are less fortunate.  Perhaps your child wants to donate some birthday gifts this year or maybe not even receive gifts from friends (usually the parents, grandparents, cousins, etc. make the birthday boy or girl feel plenty special without receiving even more gifts from friends).  My kids and their friends have done that on occasion here when their parties involve a large group; they realize they really don't need that many gifts.  In lieu of gifts, the birthday child has asked for items to donate to various charities of his/her choice.  That has been a great feeling when the items are all delivered, and the children can see with their own eyes how they've been able to give back.

Even reading books that touch on the topic of being grateful help prompt discussion about the matter.  The Orange Shoes by Trinka Hakes Noble is a perfect book for this.  It's a family favorite in our house, filled with wonderful messages for our children.  I highly recommend it!

7. GIVE THEM THE WORDS THEY NEED

Sometimes our kids seem ungrateful simply because the wrong words come out when they don't know what to say, or they don't realize how harsh their words actually sound.  I remember when my kids were in preschool, each child took turns having "snack week".  When it was your week, you provided the snack every day.  The kids could hardly wait until it was their week!  When you're in a class with 10 other children, your week doesn't come around too often, you know.  :)

Early in my daughter's first preschool year, she came home one day, and I asked what they had for snack, just like I always did (this was big news).  Her response:  "Raisins and cheese crackers.  Yuck!"  Now as her mother, I knew full well that those were not two of her favorite things.  In fact, she could hardly tolerate a single raisin.  I asked her what she said when the snack was being passed out.  She told me she said that she didn't like anything and didn't want any of the snack that day.  So I asked her how the "Snack Girl" probably felt.  I remember her staring at me suddenly, as if the thought had never occurred to her.

Most likely, the "Snack Girl" was beyond thrilled to be sharing two of her favorites with the class that day (sweets were not allowed), but I would bet that she was also completely deflated when her little friend (my daughter) let everyone know that not only did she not like the snack, but she didn't want a single bite.  So I talked with my daughter about this, and I helped her with words and actions that might seem more grateful next time.

Sure enough, when it was her turn to be "Snack Girl", a few kids reacted the same way she had by declaring her snack to be inedible, and she came home telling me how her feelings had been hurt.  She could really see, then, what it was like to be on the receiving end of those comments.  No one meant to be hurtful, ungrateful, or unkind.  Sometimes kids just don't think about how their words come out.  

Going forward, it made me so proud to hear her say things like this:  "Mom!  It was Jaden's turn to be Snack Boy today.  I didn't really like his snack, but I didn't let anyone know.  I just took a little bit to be nice, and I actually didn't mind it that much.  I told him it was so nice of him to share with the class, and I asked him if he helped his mom decide what to bring..."

Sometimes they just need a little help with their words... if you simply give them the words they need, they almost always use them the next time around.  

*If you have a preschool-aged child, don't miss this post with 10 Things to Think About Before Your Child Starts Kindergarten (That Have Nothing to Do with Academics).

The Santa Video

8. TEACH THEM TO BE GRATEFUL FOR EVEN THE SMALLEST THINGS

I just about broke my toe one time when I heard my daughter walking in the front door after getting dropped off from school.  She was 6, and when I would ask her, "Did you remember to say thank you for the ride?" she would always shake her head:  "Darn it!  I forgot again!"  So I started trying to catch her in the act so she could at least shout it toward the car as her friend's parent was driving off until it became habitual for her.  One time I apparently dove for the front door a wee bit aggressively and I nailed my foot on the corner of the dishwasher.  Ouch!

That shows you that obviously I think it's important to teach our children to show their gratitude for even the smallest things!  :)  Some examples:

- When someone holds the door open for them

- When a server sets down their food or drink 

- When they exit a bus, a taxi, an airplane, etc.

- When they get a ride home

- When someone compliments them.  {Be sure they acknowledge the compliment; don't just say thank you for them, no matter how shy your child may be.  At least try to encourage a head nod for even the shyest child if you prompt them with "Wasn't that nice she said she liked your dress?"  My girls are all different, but I'm a big believer in helping them to find their own voice!}

- After dinner at a friend's house, or yes, even at home.  {I think your children should thank you each night for making--or picking up--their dinner.  They simply show up at the table and sit down to eat.  I personally think there should be some gratitude expressed for that.}

- When someone babysits them.  {It's important to us that our girls understand that babysitters take time out of their lives to watch our kids so Mommy and Daddy can get some much-needed time away.  I know sitters are paid, but that doesn't mean the kids should act disrespectfully or be ungrateful.  If we get a "bad report", our kids are expected to draw a picture for, or write a note to, the sitter.  In some cases (after really bad behavior!), we have even baked something together to deliver to the babysitter in person to go along with the note.  I will go with them to the sitter's house, but my daughter has to verbally express how sorry she is on her own.  That's hard to do in person, but I think it's a great lesson on being grateful.}

 

9. IT'S OKAY TO MAKE THEM WANT FOR THINGS 

I think sometimes we parents worry too much about upsetting our kids.  It's okay to be the bad guy once in a while.  How else are they going to learn about the ups and downs in life?  Each day of their lives doesn't need to be tied up with a perfect little bow.  That's not how real life works.

When one of my girls had just turned 4, she asked Santa for a scooter.  Leading up to Christmas, she was acting like a miserable child, throwing daily rabid-animal-like tantrums, complete with sweat and drool, that seemed to go on forever.  No one can ever say she didn't have tenacity!  (I'm sure anyone who knows her now could never imagine this behavior in a million years!  But trust me.  She was OUT. OF. CONTROL.)  We tried everything.  We even watched The Super Nanny religiously to try to figure out how to handle her.

As Christmas neared, we told her during the calm moments that Santa might not be able to bring her what she wanted most if she was going to keep acting that way.  Even though she was barely 4, we knew she understood.  She even seemed to agree.  She knew she was in real danger of being on the naughty list.

Long story short, her behavior never improved, and we just couldn't let Santa give her the scooter.  The last thing we wanted was for her to receive that and think, "Wow, I can behave badly, and I still get whatever I want!"  Nope.  That wasn't going to fly in this house, and that was a message we didn't want her to receive at the ripe old age of 4.  We wanted her to see that there are consequences in life.  You can't expect to walk all over people and still have life go your way.  So good ol' Santa unwrapped that scooter (yes, it was even wrapped already!) and saved it for another time.  

Before you think we are terrible parents for being so harsh, please know that she still had a wonderful Christmas.  She just didn't get that one thing at the very top of her list.  And honestly, she wasn't even upset.  As we talked about it, her take was, "I guess Santa really was watching me.  I'm going to be SO good this year, and maybe he'll bring me the scooter next Christmas!"  And you know what?  He did.  Her behavior improved dramatically from that day forward, and one year later, she found that same scooter under the tree... but this time it was well-deserved.  I'm happy to say that if you fast forward 7 years, she is one grateful and respectful kid now.  

*Find some pretty cool scooters here for kids of any age.  Always a great gift!

P.S.  If you look closely at the scooter below, you will see that even after one year, we still weren't sure how to assemble that darn thing.  Note the basket hanging backwards and near her feet.  I will not disclose whether it was my husband or me doing the handiwork...

10. REMIND THEM OVER AND OVER AGAIN

I know it's a lot of work to stay on your kids about saying thank you for every little thing, writing notes, even showing a good example yourself.  It's so much easier to let things slide or give them whatever they want just to make them STOP.  But try to hang in there with all of it.  Remind them.  Encourage them.  Talk with them.  Show them.  Every single day.  It will get easier as things become habitual for your children.  It will be worth it, and you will be one proud parent when your child grows up to be a grateful person with a positive outlook on life and all of its blessings.  

In the end, I think someday your children will look back on your efforts and say with sincerity, "THANK YOU for teaching me to see the world this way."

What do you do to help your child be more grateful?  I'd love to know!

Thanks for reading!

Until next time, 

~ HH

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