Teaching kids to be grateful

When kids learn to be grateful, they learn to be compassionate, empathetic and appreciative.

All photos by Tracy Trautner, “The things I am grateful for.”
All photos by Tracy Trautner, “The things I am grateful for.”

Teaching kids to be thankful or grateful can be tricky. I have always tried to find a healthy balance between asking my kids to say thank you for a gift they receive versus truly being grateful. Just hearing “thank you” from kids sometimes seems more obligatory versus a sincere gesture. Society sets us up to believe that good manners equal good kids. In reality, if children are not given the chance to learn how to be grateful on their own, they can grow up feeling entitled and always disappointed.

Teaching toddlers and preschoolers to be grateful is difficult, as kids this age are naturally self-centered. Being grateful means they must look outside themselves and appreciate what others do for them. It’s an important concept to teach, and adults can do so in many ways. Adults can work gratitude into their daily conversation even over the most ordinary tasks. Saying things like, “I really appreciated it when you set the table,” or “We are so lucky to have a dog like Spot,” will show your kids you notice and are thankful.

Being grateful for the everyday, simple things is a great way to teach appreciation, empathy and compassion as well as other important life skills. Kids who are thankful are also sensitive to the feelings of others. Over dinner or at bedtime, ask your children to think of one or two good things that happened to them during their day. Eventually, it will just become part of their natural conversations.

Tracy Trautner and her dogMichigan State University Extension offers the following ideas on how to help your child learn the art of gratitude:

  • Have kids help. Start by giving them small jobs and gradually increase their level of responsibility.
  • Encourage generosity through donations of toys or clothes no longer in use.
  • Insist on thank-you notes. Young kids can do drawings until they are able to write their notes.
  • Be patient. Learning to be grateful does not happen overnight. Reinforce efforts you see in your child and you will be thankful you did.

Parents can’t ask kids to be grateful. Being grateful is an attitude and a feeling. Saying “thank you” for a gift is one thing, but no matter how hard we try we cannot make them feel grateful. My kids didn’t learn to be grateful by me complaining they’re ungrateful when they didn’t express gratitude. They learned to be grateful through watching the important adults in their lives be appreciative and thankful, volunteering in our community for different charities, and donating toys and clothes they no longer wanted or needed to a family we knew needed extra support.

Kids need to realize the good things in their lives so they can give back to their community, friends and family. Pets can also provide children a wonderful lesson on being grateful, as they show us their unconditional gratitude constantly throughout their life.

FamilyResearch shows that people, including kids, are always more appreciative and grateful for experiences versus gifts. As an adult, I can remember many of the experiences we did as a family versus the gifts we received. (Except the Tickle-me Elmo. I remember that like it was yesterday and was very grateful for that gift.)

As my kids are getting older and heading to college and busy with their own lives, I text pictures of things I am grateful for: my family, friends and pets to name a few. Eventually, they will do the same, not because I ask them to, but because it will make them feel good about themselves and the life they live.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2016 impact report: “Preparing young children for success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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