Updated: Nov 18, 2021
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, gratitude may be on your mind (or, maybe it's buried somewhere below the endless to do list in your mind, that now possibly includes cooking a turkey).
Most parents want their children to be grateful for all they have, and so it might be helpful to ask:
What does it mean to be grateful anyway?
Being grateful is a feeling of being thankful or appreciative. It often involves taking a pause to notice something or someone that is good in your life and that you are thankful for.
Feeling grateful may also include an act of gratitude, a behavior, such as saying “thank you”. But, you can certainly say “thank you” without feeling anything close to gratitude. Since Halloween was only a few weeks ago, let’s think about when your child was Trick or Treating and got a piece of candy. You probably prompted your child to say “thank you”, which they may or may not have said. But, if we focus solely on teaching children the behavior (saying, “thank you”) they may be missing the feeling of being grateful, which is what we’re really trying to teach them.
Prior to Trick or Treating, and most definitely before your child is in their costume and full of excitement (and maybe a little anxiety, too) walk through what they can expect. Then, you can add something like this: “It’s really kind of our neighbors to buy and share candy and treats with you and the other kids. I’m thankful that we have such friendly neighbors and are able to go Trick or Treating. Let’s be sure to thank them and let them know we appreciate it!”. Will you still need to prompt a "thank you" during Trick or Treating? Most likely. Does that mean the conversation was meaningless? Absolutely not.
How else can we teach our children how to identify that they’re feeling grateful?
One of the best ways to teach children about gratitude is to model it yourself.
Label and identify the feeling when you have it. Say it out loud. Maybe you’re grateful for being able to have Thanksgiving with your family this year. Or, maybe you’re grateful for the first sip of hot coffee in the morning. Big or small, these examples can highlight the feeling and get children thinking about it.
Maybe you notice your child feeling grateful, but they haven't labeled it yet, go ahead and say "sounds like you're feeling grateful that your friend sat with you at lunch today."
Include your child if you are thanking someone outside of your family (e.g., calling them, writing a note, dropping off a baked good). Remember, although these are behaviors, or acts of gratitude, focus on the feeling – how did what that person did make you feel?
You can also say “thank you” for your child if they are having a hard time doing so in the moment. I’d avoid getting into a power struggle here. Forcing a child who feels too shy to say something does not go well. There are no winners, and most definitely no learning about gratitude or manners - really there's no learning anything. In this situation, just model the thank you for your child and move on!
You don’t need to do this every day, and you definitely don’t need to turn to your child after and say “that was an example of being grateful” - they are listening, because they always are.
If this feels new or awkward to you, even better!
Of course, go to strategies such as listing something that you’re thankful for every day at bedtime, volunteering your time to support those in need, or making or writing sending thank you cards to important people in your life are all ideas to help children understand and recognize feeling grateful. You may also be interested in a gratitude journal for kids or the book “The Opposite of Spoiled” by Ron Lieber.
Thanks for reading. I’m grateful you did.
p.s., one more thing: feeling grateful is not the opposite of complaining. First, gratitude is a feeling and complaining is a behavior, like saying “thank you”. Complaining typically stems from feeling frustrated.
Think about this:
Are you grateful for your home? Your job? Your children? Your partner?
Have you every complained about your home? Job? Children? Partner?
So, next time your child complains about something, instead of saying “you should be grateful for your sister” consider validating their feeling. Just as you might want someone to say “Ugh, so frustrating when it’s just one thing after another with home repairs” after you’ve shared a complaint about your home. “You should be grateful you have a home” or "you should be grateful for your sister doesn’t feel quite as validating. Focus on their feelings first, you can try out the strategies in this post and work on gratitude later.