Successfully teaching this important lesson to children can start with their parents.
Your 3-year-old is thrilled by the pile of presents at her birthday party. She rips through the gift wrap, barely looking at the contents, before grabbing for the next one. You are mortified, as you requested that she thank each person. Instead, she isn’t acknowledging anyone and, even worse, is throwing out comments like, I already have this.
The next day, she grumbles mightily about the meal you’ve prepared for her, shifts it around her plate, and complains long and loudly enough that you’re tempted to toss it in the trash and give in to her requests for junk food. Despite your best efforts to teach her thankfulness about the blessing of food on her plate, being overly picky and wasteful overcomes gratitude all too often.
Whats a parent to do? It may seem hard to believe, but this is not the time to teach thankfulness. Instead, relax and understand that this behavior is completely normal.
Back to the gift scenario: Birthdays are overwhelming to toddlers. All attention is on them, so emotions and excitement run high. Don’t take this occasion to have a one-on-one talk about thankfulness. Instead, do what really works: Model the behavior you want to see in your child by saying thank you for her.
Parents teach children thankfulness from the moment they are born. Every time you calm a distressed infant, your soothing builds security, trust and gratitude. Each smile an infant offers a parent can be viewed as gratitude. It is a feeling of being loved, which forms the basis of feeling thankful.
As your child ages, she needs to develop a clear sense of who she is separate from her parents before she can learn the selflessness that comes with true gratitude. This sense of self begins sometime between ages 1 and 2. Feelings of security get solidified in toddler-hood, which is when true gratitude can start to take root. But it typically isn’t until after age 5 that children become more consistently capable of putting others needs first at least some of the time.
Once your toddler starts to talk, thank you will likely be one of the first phrases you teach her. We want our children to be polite. Contrary to what most parents think, insisting on them saying thank you is not how children learn to be thankful. Children learn what they live. When parents say please and thank you to their child, they learn that behavior. The same goes when you express gratitude to store clerks, doctors or your spouse. Keep in mind that it can take a while before they start to imitate your actions.
Thankfulness is a skill that develops over time. As children’s cognitive abilities develop, they can understand that others may have different views, ideas and feelings. This is difficult for younger children, but they get better at it as they get older.
Rest assured, the 3-year-old who is greedily opening gifts or refusing to eat will someday become a teenager who understands that her actions impact others. Toddlers are incapable of having perspective in such a situation, but teens can step back and reflect, see the needs of others and take them into consideration before acting upon what they feel. As a result, they become more thoughtful in their actions. This alone might give you a good reason to look forward to the teen years.
Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D., is a mother of three boys and author of How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success. Dr. Klein is Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development at Barnard College, Columbia University, and an Associate Professor of Psychology. Her advice has appeared in The New York Times, Redbook, Parents and numerous other publications.