If you’re looking around your living room right now like I am, in the aftermath of Christmas morning, it looks like a department store exploded. There are scattered boxes of beautiful and fun things. Your stomach might still be full from all the gorging you’ve been doing, and a wonderful meal is yet to come. The furnace is running, you’re snug and warm, and you’re surrounded by loving faces.
In short, if you’re reading this and nodding along, we’re blessed. And it’s wonderful. But as fun as the holiday season is, it’s important to keep all of these gifts (both from stores and not) in perspective. It’s not just acknowledging that people don’t share in these blessings equally, it’s that it’s important to be grateful. It’s also important for children to be grateful, and Christmas is a nice time to help them with that.
Young children are, by nature, self-centered. That doesn’t mean they’re doomed to be jerks, but they must be taught. Gratitude teaches empathy—imaging how others feel. Barbara Lewis, author of What Do You Stand For? For Kids: A Guide to Building Character warns that children who don’t learn gratitude end up being entitled…and unhappy.
So how can you encourage gratitude in children? Here are some ideas that work in our house:
1. Model it
I try really hard to verbalize gratitude. I always thank my husband for dinner when we go out to eat, and my son has started to do the same. My husband thanks me for making dinner at night, and now my son does the same. I also laud W for helping. I know some advisors say that you shouldn’t thank kids for doing things they should be doing anyway—like putting their clothes in the hamper or cleaning up after themselves—but I think he finds it encouraging. I swear, little kids are like Tinker Bell: they’ll do anything for applause.
2. Insist on sharing
If my kid has an order of French fries, you better believe I’m eating one. If he gets a piece of cake…Mommy gets a bite. I call it “taxes” (might as well get used to the world, kid!), and he goes along with it now. When he acts stingy, I remind him that I always share with him (and I do), and he drops it. Sometimes I take some of his stuff just to remind him to share. That probably sounds weird, but as an only child, I’m his only competition for food, lol.
I’m lucky in that he doesn’t have a problem sharing his toys with other kids and he’s fine taking turns. However, I insist on it at home. When we’re playing a game or using his toys, I don’t let him win all the time, nor do I let him have all the good blocks if we’re building, for instance. I think it’s important that he learns to play with someone (even adults) and that means sharing.
3. Write thank you notes
My mom insisted that we write thank you notes when I was a child, and I loved it. In fact, my deep and abiding love of paper products flowed from there. Mom always got us our own special stationary, and I think that helped us take ownership of the process. I found doggie note cards for my son, and he’s going to love them. W is four, so he gets to practice writing his letters too. When he was younger, I’d have him scribble his name and sometimes I used a pad of ink to stamp his foot or hand print on the card. Even babies under a year can get in on the action.
It’s important for a child to have buy-in in the experience and want to do it. The act of writing out the notes helps them take an inventory of their loot. Christmas morning is a flurry of unwrapping, and there’s not a sense of the trouble someone went to or even the amount of stuff received. Thank you notes can change all of that.
4. Make sure they give
‘Tis the season to give as well as receive. This is another one from my mom, but she always made us save our allowances to buy each family member a gift. They were only $5, but I remember the great joy I had at picking those presents out. It made me stop and think about each person, put myself in their shoes, and think about the happiness they might get from the present. Basically, it’s the very definition of empathy. In the pre-allowance era, a homemade gift is great. I know my son relishes making pictures for other people.
In time, helping to pick out a toy or give away toys to children in need is also a good idea, and one that should be encouraged. However, the joy of giving will be easier to understand when they actually see a person receiving something they gave or made. It’s hard for little kids to imagine or project another person’s feelings, so seeing grandma (or whoever’s) reaction to a gift is important.
5. List, draw, or say what you’re grateful for
I realized this past Thanksgiving that my son didn’t really understand the word “thankful.” I saw really cute placemats at Target that had space to write what you’re grateful for. When I set the table, I put a marker by everyone’s forks. Before I served the meal, I asked everyone to write what they were thankful for and then we read them out loud. It was super touching, and I think it helped my son get it. Added bonus? It helped all of us adults count our blessings too. Turns out you’re never too old to learn gratitude.
Share with us! What do you do to encourage gratitude?