Q: I have two kids (3 and 7) and as we enter end of the year holidays I start feeling uncomfortable that they act entitled to a lot of gifts. I have to remind them to say thank you and they are incredibly annoyed when I push them to write thank-you notes. I don’t want to get preachy with them because I know they’ll just tune out but I don’t want them to become selfish teenagers. What’s the best way to teach gratitude to kids?
A: Kids are hard-wired to get their needs met first. It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint – young, vulnerable creatures who didn’t demand to get their needs met wouldn’t survive. So take heart in knowing that the self-centeredness you see in your kids is a normal survival mechanism.. for a while. Eventually humans need to curb the self-focus if they want a quality life in our interdependent society. Studies done on gratitude in children and adolescents show that grateful kids tend to have better social support, stronger self-esteem, fewer physical health complaints, use their strengths to improve their community, and are more satisfied with their lives. They tend to do better academically, are more engaged in hobbies, and have a better attitude about school, family, and friends. Adults who practice gratitude are more empathic and optimistic and have lower levels of depression and stress. It’s been shown over and over that gratitude plays a huge role in happiness (some experts say it can boost happiness by 25%) which has been repeatedly linked to good health and a longer lifespan. We want all those things for our kids! So you’re right in thinking you need to step in – things like gratitude and putting others first need to be taught.
Your question specified entering the holiday season keeping gratitude in mind. Great timing – you can talk about why Turkey/Football/Macy’s Parade Day is actually called “Thanksgiving,” and relate it to present-day reasons to give thanks. Here are a couple of fun Thanksgiving projects the family can do to cultivate gratitude. Another creative option is to bring a tree branch into the house (or draw a tree) and every day have family members write down one thing they’re grateful for on a construction paper leaf and attach it to the tree.
For the gift-giving season, give your kids a portion of what they asked for. Receiving everything you want promotes a sense of entitlement, and entitled kids who grow up to be entitled adults experience frequent disappointment with life and relationships. Pass the “fewer gifts” message on to extended family, especially if loving grandparents tend to overindulge. If you do end up with a million presents, consider storing some (unopened) for another time – they can be a great incentive and reward for a major behavior change or can quickly improve moods on a boring rainy day. If you’re inundated with excessive gifts that threaten to nudge you out of your living space, consider non-thing gift ideas.
Emphasize celebration, togetherness, and tradition rather than presents. But unless you’re living under a rock it’s next to impossible to escape our gift-giving culture in December, so encourage the giving part of exchanging gifts. Have your kids make two lists – a list of what they’d like to get and a list of what they could give. This promotes empathy (given what I know of this person, what would make them happy?), being observant of others (if you’re trying to think of a gift for someone you’re more likely to notice their likes, dislikes, and needs when spending time with them), and creativity (especially if the gift is homemade). Encourage not just giving but doing for others – here’s a family challenge that can be a fun tradition around the end of the year that embraces the generous spirit of the holidays.
Get the kids in the habit of writing thank-you cards. Acknowledge their misery about it but let them know it is a part of receiving a gift, and that sending a text doesn’t cut it because it requires very little effort so it doesn’t have the same meaning (but if written thank-you’s just aren’t going to happen, email is better than nothing. Email a video of your child expressing appreciation or a help your child type a note). Make handwritten notes easier for them by gathering all the supplies (notecards, stamps, address book, etc.) and set reasonable expectations (e.g. two cards a day until they’re done). Kids who are verbal but can’t yet write can draw a picture or dictate to you their message of thanks. Elementary school kids can write it themselves – one sentence per grade is a good guideline. No matter how you’re expressing thanks, model and encourage strong, fleshed-out thank you’s that are specific and meaningful and authentic (don’t say, “I love it!” if you don’t). Don’t be afraid to channel your mother and tell your kids what she told you: “It’s the thought that counts.” And like you said, don’t just state it in a preachy way. Talk about in a way they can relate to (“I know this sweater is too young for you now, but Aunt Hattie remembers that you used to love teddy bears and she thought you would enjoy this.”).
Above all, model gratitude. The kids won’t be the only ones who benefit.