Gratitude, it seems, doesn’t come naturally to young children. They are born completely helpless, and honestly, completely selfish. This makes sense. Their very survival depends on their needs being met. So, of course, they are self-centered. However, teaching toddlers gratitude can be done, if certain keys are followed.
First of all, it is very important to model an attitude of gratitude. Thanking children for their hard work picking up their toys; thoughtful gifts of scribbled paper; and when speedy obedience; helps them understand that saying “Thank You” shows appreciation and is something big people do. Also, being mindful to say thank you when your spouse does something shows that gratitude is something that should be expressed anytime anyone does something kind. Along with this, a grateful attitude when people help with servicing the car, or repairing something in the home, or waiting on the family, again shows that thankfulness is what big people do. As the grateful behavior is modeled and taught, it is also appropriate to expect children to behave in the same manner. Being sure to remind children of any age to say “Thank you” reinforces this behavior and builds an attitude of gratitude.
Second, make it a habit to discuss the things you are grateful for, including the family when you do. This doesn’t have to happen at any formal setting. Just noticing the blessings daily helps to teach young children that they have many blessing. I’m not saying say “You have so much to be thankful for.” This statement can set up a guilt response in the children—not a grateful response. The conversation should be more of a “What a great blessing to be able to open the fridge and have fresh fruit – in the middle of winter” kind of discussion. Showing children their blessings in a gentle and happy way, instead of an accusatory or demeaning way, will go much further in teaching them to be grateful on their own.
Third, participating in service projects – neighborhood cleanups, food drives, etc., helps reinforce the blessings the family has received. The projects don’t need to be formally arranged. One of our favorite service projects is to make cookies and take them around to the neighbors. We get to make the cookies together, then take them to people. Sometimes it’s hard for our kids to deliver the cookies before we get to eat any, but they have learned that we will have cookies when we get back.
Finally, insisting on good manners when receiving gifts helps children understand that gifts represent a sacrifice for the person giving them. No one is entitled to gifts, even at birthdays or during the holidays. Talking to children about how they are expected to react when presented with gifts, and insisting they do so, reinforces that the gifts are special, no matter what the chidlren were given. For example, when my second son was turning six both of his fantastic Grandmas gave him the exact same book. And, until they read this post, they didn’t know that had happened. Why? Because he was as grateful and appreciative the second time he received the book, as he was the first time. And when that happened, I was a very proud Mommy!
Gratitude isn’t like a sweater only to be put on for the month of November, and left in the closet of our hearts the rest of the year. It should be more like a seed – carefully planted and tended, until the harvest of a grateful life is reaped. And, as parents, we can help our children plant their own seeds of gratitude. And, more importantly, gratitude can be taught from early toddlerhood on. The sooner these keys are taught, the sooner the habits will form, and the easier gratitude will be to cultivate in ourselves, and our children.