How to Teach Children Gratitude

Your child is not too young to learn gratitude! Do you, like me, ever hear disapproving talk of millennials and hope helplessly that your kids will turn out to be the gracious ones instead of the entitled ones? I’ve done a little experimentin’, feeling hopeful, and am here to share in case you too are looking for a plan of action.

Nearing the end of a recent play date, I warned my kids that we were leaving soon and it was time to clean up our mess. My five-year-old son launched right into a loud protest, but I calmly interrupted him without even looking up: “I’m sorry, I don’t think that’s what you meant to say.” His immediate response: “Thanks for taking us to friends, Mom!” and started picking up toys without further comment. In typical critical parent fashion, I was still annoyed that my child had opposed me in the first place when I heard the four other adults in the room (two young parents, two grandparents) say “Wow,” in unison. I looked up and realized they were wowing over my son’s response. I suddenly recognized he was making great progress in using his manners and deserved praise for it, which I gave.

Gratitude for a blue cupcake

My point? Children can learn gratitude. And trust me, if my little heathens can, any child can. And if my horribly imperfect parenting can teach it, anyone can.

Here are three simple exercises that have noticeably increased gratitude in our young children.

1. Consistently require thank-yous

The way we see it in the Bennett house, saying “thank you” is a learned skill like any other manners and therefore requires guidance and practice. Practice, practice, practice. (Same goes for “please.”) Plain and simple, we require—and remind, if necessary—our children to say please and thank you for every. little. thing. Thank you for a cup of milk, for pushing their swings, for taking them to the pool. If that sounds outrageous to you, just know that our five-year-old thanked us for dinner tonight in the middle of the meal without any urging. Then our three-year-old followed suit. They both thanked us again when they left the table!

One may argue that this does not count if they’re being forced and don’t really mean it. First, our kids definitely know what “thank you” means and apply it spontaneously enough to show us we’re getting through to them. Second, we consider this an exercise in teaching them to recognize all they have for which to be grateful.

2. Counter tantrums with gratitude

This exercise started completely by accident and for selfish reasons. My husband and I were fed up (I’m sure most of you are much more patient parents!) with the constant tantrums from our two toddler boys in response to every little disappointment. This was especially infuriating after a full day of activities centered on entertaining them. So one day we interrupted a tantrum by demanding that our son list all the things we had done for him that day. He resisted, we persisted, he came up with one or two things (“took me to the zoo…gave me cookies”), and we filled in the rest: “We made you meals, read you books, let you play with friends, took you to school….” Miraculously, his body relaxed, he forgot his anger, and we were able to calmly move on with bedtime and give lots of hugs. We figured it was a fluke, but boy was it satisfying to be validated, however forced the admission was! To our amazement, we tried it again and again and have continued the exercise for over two years now, always with the same result—nearly immediate dissipation of the tantrum, relaxation, better communication, and a happier demeanor. Our sons seem sincerely grateful…or at least remember that Mom and Dad are on their side. I have no clinical explanation or support for this gratitude exercise, but it’s working well for our little family.

Gratitude as part of our bedtime routine
Gratitude as part of our bedtime routine.

3. “Gratitudes” before bed

Our third exercise is simple and hardly original. As part of our bedtime routine and in addition to their prayers, the boys (and then my husband and I) each list five things for which they’re grateful: like what many do at their Thanksgiving table. We encourage them to be very specific about their day. Again, teaching them to recognize their blessed life.

While it’s most important to my husband and me to teach our children gratitude as a life skill, I’ll be honest- it really improves our mood and motivation as parents to be acknowledged by those for which we sacrifice so much!

The most surprising—and best—result of all this is my realization that I, as an adult, need these exercises in gratitude as much as my children need them. We all fall victim to feelings of negativity, self-pity, entitlement, even selfishness and I’ve come to learn that gratitude is the antidote to all of them. Gratitude fosters contentment and happiness…for all ages.

What are some of the ways you are teaching your young ones gratitude? I’d love to see any of your tips on the comments. Thanks for reading!


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