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Teaching Children to be Grateful


Boy hugging woman, smiling
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Sometimes I am amazed at the things my kids do. As I was taking my youngest son and his friend trick or treating last Halloween, I decided to listen to the doorstep interactions between the boys and the "treat-givers." While I knew my son would say "Thank You" for every item he received, I did expect a wide variety in his enthusiasm based on how good the treat was. But he surprised me with how sincere he sounded, door after door.

I asked him as he was sorting through the loot about his experience, and he told me that he and his friend had been talking at school about trick or treating. They decided that some people just turned out the lights or left so they didn't have to spend the money on candy for the kids in the neighborhood. So everyone who was home and had candy, no matter what it was, had to be a nice person who liked kids, so they wanted to thank each one.

Well, our kids have been taught an attitude of gratitude over the years, mainly by their mother. But as I have reflected over the last few weeks about what we did to help them learn gratitude, I have identified some important strategies for teaching kids to the thankful and to express it. Try these ideas and see if they work for you like they have for us.

Make a List. From time to time, we take some time as a family to make a list of the things we are grateful for. Our kids have usually said things like a favorite toy or food. But sometimes they will express thanks for a family where they feel safe or for a dad's income that let's them have a few luxuries. And the older ones almost always mention access to a car or the concern of a parent. It is fun to watch their priorities change as they grow older.

Set the Example. Parents have to model behavior they hope their children adopt as their own. A simple, sincere expression of gratitude when the kids do something they were asked to do is always appropriate. Taking an extra moment to thank a sales clerk at the store or to tip your news carrier for getting the paper on the porch every day lets them know that gratitude is acceptable and encouraged.

Don't Demand Thanks. "I work my fingers to the bone every day for you, and I never hear a word of thanks" was a popular litany in the home of one of my friends when I was a youngster. Avoid demanding thanks from your children. They will internalize example much more than they will threats or humiliation. If you offer it sincerely to them, they will learn the skills of gratitude.

Teach Through Role Playing. If you notice a lack of the gratitude attitude, consider a little role playing. Have the kids act out a scenario where someone went out of their way for someone else, and have the receiver express gratitude. You might even consider a negative example and see how the giver feels when his or her giving is ignored.

Establish Family Traditions. In our home, dad gives a "speech" before every holiday dinner (at mom's insistence). I always talk about the blessings we have in our family (even if it's not Thanksgiving). Some families at Sunday dinner go around the table and ask each child to name one thing they are thankful for. Still others write thank you notes after every birthday and Christmas. By having family rituals that center on gratitude, children learn to express thanks.

Offer Service. My wife's elderly uncle lives a few blocks away, and we have volunteered as a family to weed his front flower bed now that he and his wife are less able to keep up. They are so appreciative of our service, and the kids feel good when we spend the morning working at Uncle Lavon's. Try taking the family to a nursing home or a homeless shelter to volunteer. They will often find that a little selfless service tends to make selfishness go away.

Try Going Without. From time to time, have a family project that involves going without something important. For example, try making bread for a week rather than buying it, or try walking to any destination less than two miles away. A little sacrifice causes us to miss things that we take for granted and helps us be a little more humble and grateful when the thing is restored.

It's the Little Things. A little common courtesy can go a long way, and taking time to notice the little acts of service in a family or a neighborhood can be so positive. Look for ways to say thank you often.

A little extra effort can go a long way in teaching children the importance of being thankful and of expressing than thanks in a sincere and meaningful way.

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