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Parents Corner

RAISE A THANKFUL CHILD
and be grateful you did!

By Grace Bennett

How many times have you done it lately: prompted your child to say thank you to a neighbor, a friend, or Grandma? It's natural to want to raise a thankful child, and those little reminders to say thanks never hurt. But the latest thinking about kids and gratitude is that you need to nurture this life skill while keeping your child's development in mind. There's no such thing as an unappreciative preschooler, because young kids "don't understand the concept of gratitude in the way that adults do," says Julie A. Riess, Ph.D., the director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery school at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Even 5 and 6 year olds are only starting to grasp that please and thank you are more than magic words that please Mommy and Daddy.

When you begin to feel a bit hurt or angry because your child isn't gracious to you or others, bear in mind that all kids start out being self-centered. "It's normal and natural for young kids to believe everyone in the world exists exclusively for their benefit," says Deborah Spaide, the author of Teaching Your Kids to Care (Citadel Press). "Thankfulness is just not part of their job description," say quips.

"Before age 7 children developmentally have difficulty understanding how other people feel or that their own actions affect others," explains Neri Wallace, a child and family Therapist and directors of the Heights Center for Adult and Child Development in Brooklyn. "Empathy is a cornerstone of appreciation, and it takes years before children are able t think beyond their own wants and needs."

Growing feelings of gratitude

Gratitude is a social grace that takes years to develop - and that many adults have yet to master. Thankfully, there are many ways that caring and concerned parents can raise their preschoolers to become more appreciative and to show it. Because these strategies take children's development into account, they are realistic, too.

Show your children that you're thankful for them

Children don't come into the world hardwired to be appreciative: They learn this over time, notes Wallace. Before kids can show concern for other's feelings she explains, they have to feel loved and cared for: "Loving attention enables them to develop empathy."

Beside TLC, you can cultivate gratitude by tuning children into the pleasure of being appreciated. For instance, you might tell your daughter, "I'm so happy to have a little girl like you," to express how thankful you are to have her in your life.

Be appreciative yourself

Do unto others as you expect your kids to do unto you - and everyone else. Children are apt to do as we do, not as we say, says Wallace. Particularly for those who are not yet talking, "modeling is the best way to teach social conventions so they can be internalized," adds Dr. Riess, who points out that her nursery school staff never prompts kids to say please and thank you, but always models manners. Since your actions are such a strong shaper of your children's habits, make sure you shower your spouse and other people with thanks for thoughtful gestures.

Let your children know you're grateful for what they do

Also essential to raising a more thankful child is to praise any empathetic impulses (such as a toddler offering his cherished blankie to a crying baby) and to let a child know when his actions have made someone happy, says Wallace. Margaret Wiginton, the mother of two, always acknowledges considerate things her daughters say and do. She'll thank 3-year-old Maggie for bringing her a toy or exclaim to 5-year-old Emily "Thanks for drawing me such a beautiful picture. I love it!" And her efforts seem to be paying off. "My youngest still has to be reminded to say thank you, but Emily usually remembers on her own."

Don't demand thanks

Instead of scolding or shaming a child when he isn't courteous or grateful, praise him when he is. Tell your son, "I like it when you say thank you," if he expresses gratitude for a gift. "You slowly build a skill with positive reinforcement," says Wallace. Don't command your child to be courteous ("Thank Aunt Sue for the block set right now!") or withhold a gift or goodie if he doesn't say thank you. "Gratitude shouldn't stem from shame or fear of punishment," Wallace explains.

While gentle reminders (What do you say?") can help preschoolers learn courtesy, Wallace says the best way to teach thankfulness is to demonstrate considerate behavior and include your children in the effort. For instance, you might say to your 3 year-old, "Let's both say thank you to Aunt Sue for bringing you the block set." If your son doesn't join in, don't force the issue. Simply tell Aunt Sue, "Michael doesn't feel like talking right now, but I'm sure he'll love your wonderful birthday present." Later, when Michael is playing with the blocks, explain that it makes people feel good when you thank them for gifts. Eventually, as your child matures and doesn't see the world exclusively through his own eyes, he'll more often think of others and express his gratitude to them.

Consider the reasons behind ungrateful behavior

If your preschooler is hungry, upset or tired, it's not fair to expect her to be a well-mannered companion, says Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D., the author of The Gentle Art of Communicating With Kids (John Willey & Sons). In fact, an overtired child can feel every bit as confused and upset by her poor behavior as you do.

Also take your child's temperament into account

"Some kids are more talkative than others and therefore more likely to say thank you," Wallace points out. For a reserved child, a smile may speak louder than words.

Remember, kids say what's on their minds. While adults have learned that good manners make for good relationships, impulsive preschoolers are apt to blurt out whatever comes to mind. For instance, two years ago, when Wallace gave her niece Megan two fashion dolls, the little girl announced, "I hate these dolls!" instead of saying thanks.

In this situation, a mortified mom's first instinct may be to reprimand a child for being rude. But this will humiliate a disappointed child and make her feel guilty, not grateful, according to Wallace. To soothe the feelings of a crestfallen gift giver, you might generalize about children's behavior, as Megan's mom did: "Kids this age say what they're thinking, don't they! Thank you so much for Megan's gift."

As for your own feelings, keep in mind that an embarrassing display of ingratitude is likely to be a product of your child's developmental stage, not a reflection of your parenting abilities, says Dr. Riess. In fact, consider such a display a chance to teach your child a lesson in thankfulness, she suggests. When you're alone, explain to her that no matter what someone gives her, she should always say thank you, because it's the thought that counts. With preschoolers, leave it at that. With older kids, encourage - don't force- them to make amends for ungrateful behavior with a thank-you card or call.

Role-play appreciation

Take advantage of a preschooler's love of pretend play to act out different scenarios with teddy bears in which a thank-you is required. With older kids, try sitting down before a birthday or holiday and rehearsing how to receive an unappealing gift graciously. Ask, "What would you say if you got something you didn't like?" If nothing comes to mind, practice responses that convey gratitude without faking enthusiasm, such as "Thank you so much!"

Establish year-round family rituals
that promote feelings of gratitude

Thanksgiving isn't the only time you should encourage children to count their blessings. "On Sunday evenings we go around the dinner table and each take turns saying what we're thankful for, says Elizabeth Ellis, Ph.D., the author of Raising a Responsible Child and the mother of an 8-year-old and a 13 -year -old. This kind of ritual helps foster in children an awareness and appreciation of what they have, Dr. Ellis says. It also encourages them to be grateful for everyday things, such as a trip to the park.

Embrace a less-is-more philosophy

If your child's room resembles a toy store, such overabundance may dull his sense of appreciation. "The excitement of getting a toy or a treat is dampened when receiving becomes routine," Dr. Elgin explains. To avoid toy overload, Margaret Wiginton asks relatives to give her daughters practical gifts like clothing on holidays. And if they get a mountain of toys at their birthday parties, she says, "I put some away for another time so my kids don't take for granted. This way, each gift seems special and is more valued."

If your kids always seem to want more no matter who much they have, you may need to point out that not getting everything one wants is simply part of life, otherwise, children come to believe they're entitled to all they have and more, and that attitude circumvents any feelings of gratitude. Of course, make sure your actions don't contradict your words, warns Dr. Riess. If your closets are crammed with clothes or you can't resist the latest gadgets, don't be surprised if your children constantly clamor for new toys.

Encourage your children to pitch in and help others

They will not only learn how good it feels to give but also develop empathy and gain a better appreciation of other people's needs. Kids of any age can assist you in bringing meals to shut-ins, sorting through clothes to donate to charity, and visiting people in nursing homes. Be sure to explain that all people are needy in different ways, so we need to pitch in and give one another a helping hand. For instance, you might tell preschoolers that some people in nursing homes are lonely because their kids live far away, and that your visits will cheer them up.

Sharing experiences like these makes children feel important and moves their focus from themselves to others, says Deborah Spaide, who is also the founder of Kids Care Clubs, a nonprofit organization that involves children in a host of community service projects. (For Spaide's suggestions on ways you and your kids can help others, log onto www.familycares.org.)

By nurturing thankfulness in your children you'll see their gratitude grow. Indeed, by the time your tots turn into teens, they're likely to feel and show appreciation. In a 1998 Gallup Youth Survey, 40 percent on teenagers aged 13 to 17 said they make a point of expressing thanks all the time, and 56 percent said they did this at least occasionally. For now, consider your kids' spontaneous hugs and kisses a measure of their gratitude for all that they have and all that you do.

Other useful resources

Drew Bledsoe of the New England Patriots has established the Drew Bledsoe Foundation Parenting With Dignity program. Bledsoe says of his success "my parents helped me the most to be what I am today" and his goal is to help other parents give their children the best possible start. For more information, see http://www.drewbledsoe.com/.

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Last modified: January 26, 2013