raising a grateful child
In the holiday season, many of us find ourselves caught up in a whirlwind of activities, shopping, and family and school events. The focus of Thanksgiving is ostensibly a remembrance of what we are thankful for, but often parents find themselves wondering if their children are truly grateful for blessings they enjoy.
Many parents want to instill in their children a sense of contentment and appreciation for what they have. Wendy Mogel’s book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, offers some advice to avoid the pitfalls that create a sense of entitlement. Parents are often understandably dismayed and even angered when children plead and whine for “stuff.” But Mogel points out that how we deal with our child’s desires is much more important than shaming our child for desiring things in the first place. Rather than scold a child for acting “spoiled,” a parent can simply give a calm “no” to the request. Mom and Dad can then resist giving in to pleas or protests from their child by reminding themselves that they are helping to teach self-control and the ability to cope with disappointment.
Even during the preschool years, a discussion of Needs versus Wants helps a child begin to identify what is most necessary to be happy. A parent can make it clear that family members will get their basic needs (love, warmth, food, clothing, shelter) met, but will certainly not get every material object or experience they long for. A mother might respond to a request by saying, “I know you want that dress; it’s very pretty. But you don’t need a new one right now.” This logic won’t eliminate a protest, but it does begin to help children understand this important distinction.
Parents should make sure they model the gratitude they want to cultivate in their children. Mention to your son or daughter the non-material pleasures of your day, such as taking a walk in the park, or enjoying a sunset. Try to refrain from using shopping as the preferred family recreational activity. Be wary of speaking enviously about a friend’s more lavish lifestyle. Occasionally mention how you delay gratification yourself: “I like these shoes, but I think I’ll wait until they’re on sale in a couple of weeks.” Encourage your child to save for something he wants, even if it’s something you could afford to buy for him. Things that are obtained easily and frequently are much less appreciated, and when the occasional treat is offered, it is often much more treasured.
Research indicates that developing a sense of gratitude requires us to be intentional about it. Christine Carter, a sociologist and author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, asserts that gratitude is a skill that must be learned. To develop this capacity, Carter suggests children (and their parents) discuss three good things that occurred during their day at dinner or bedtime. A family “gratitude list” can be put on the refrigerator where people can add to it. She also recommends that families do “appreciations” by stating something they value about other family members at the dinner table. Children can be encouraged to put their appreciations in writing with a letter to a special family member or teacher.
Grateful people are often people who are also altruistic and compassionate. To strengthen all those qualities, parents might think about what kinds of acts of service they can do as a family. Picking up trash on the playground, doing a chore for an elderly neighbor, collecting clothes, toys or school supplies for local charity drives, are all ways for young children to begin seeing themselves as people with something to offer, not just consumers of what adults provide them. The holiday season is a wonderful time to think about ways to help our families become more mindful of what we have to be grateful for and how to express that gratitude to each other and our community.
Lisa Phillips, MSW, GSW, is a Parent Educator at The Parenting Center.