Grateful Deeds: Fostering gratitude in children

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// by Brandi Knoepfel

Now that the curtains have closed on the holiday season, many families are sorting out all of the gifts they have received. Parents often find this time of year difficult to navigate, especially when it comes to children who show hints of greediness. Dawn Encarnacion, preschool teacher at San Jose Episcopal Day School, works to foster a sense of gratitude in her class of young children. “Every morning, I encourage my three-year-olds through prayer to love one another, respect one another and help one another.” When children display behaviors that correlate to the school’s character development program (attributes such as kindness, knowledge, etc.), they receive a paper “key” of that trait to hang by their name for the year. Teaching children these positive qualities at an early age provides a foundation for their character to build upon as they grow. Below are a few additional ways to encourage gratitude in children.

Share Stories of Gratitude
Reading books frequently can help open up conversations with younger children about thankfulness. Taking control of their feelings is an important step, says Encarnacion. “My favorite quote to say to the children is ‘Kiss Your Brain.’ This encourages them to be proud of themselves and hear that their opinion matters.” Older children who are reading and writing might benefit from a gratitude journal, which allows thankfulness to become a daily habit.

Take Care of Possessions
Displaying care for personal possessions helps the youngest members of the family see how objects should be treated. Even in toddler and preschool years, children can learn that they need to take care of their toys if they want to keep them in their lives. Some families do volunteer work, bringing the children along to encourage their desire to give to those who may be less fortunate.

Give and Receive
Practice giving and receiving at home so children can learn to act graciously with respect and thankfulness—even if a gift isn’t necessarily their favorite. “Many of us are extremely fortunate to be able to provide our children with a comfortable lifestyle,” says Holly Antal, a psychologist with Nemours Children’s Specialty Care. “For parents, it can be frustrating when our sweet children display a degree of entitlement. We cringe at the thought that our child doesn’t have the ability to express gratitude for their lifestyle, opportunities or the kindness of others. It simply isn’t on their radar.” Antal suggests letting a child think of what would make Grandma smile, then set out to create it or find an item within your means. Let them decorate a card and wrap the gift, and feel the pride that comes with being thoughtful and excited to give a gift. Buy a special stationery for children to create their own thank you notes after receiving gifts.

Exude Gratitude
As with most any trait in parenting, modeling acts of gratitude yourself is the key to encouraging gratitude with ones own children. “Encouraging children to express gratitude requires us to make the issue more central in their daily life,” says Antal. “Discuss gratitude in terms they can understand according to their developmental level. More importantly, model gratitude for them. Children learn best from the actions of those around them and those they admire.” Displaying one’s own sense of gratitude can range from something simple—thanking the orange tree for your bounty of fruit, for example—to telling your child you are grateful for them sharing a special moment. This is especially important with teenagers to share feelings of thanks as they grow more independent. “As parents, we are our children’s primary role models and have incredible influence on their behavior,” says Antal. “As you drive through the neighborhood, comment on how fortunate you are to live in a safe place. Express gratitude to your child’s teacher, the neighbor or someone else you are grateful for. Perhaps create a ritual of sharing such reflections of gratitude at dinnertime. It’s common to do so at Thanksgiving but to make it a habit or a more consistent behavior, it needs to be modeled consistently and visibly to your children. Encouraging gratitude is a great way to teach our children to focus on the positive aspects of our lives.”