How to teach children to be grateful

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IT IS very important for children to have gratitude, not just for the gifts they are given. It also helps them appreciate the people in their life and the blessings they receive. In a nutshell, it makes them happier.

Gratitude is not something you’re born with. It has to be taught when children are small. Practising gratitude often will turn it into a habit, says counselling psychologist Ivy Tan.

“It’s best to start at home when the kids are small. They can start with learning how to say ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome’. They may not really know what it means at age two, but eventually they will be able to understand as they get older,” says Tan.

Message conveyed

Most parents worry about spoiling their children with expensive gifts; that it will make them less grateful, but Tan says this is not the case. Being given expensive toys is not a prerequisite to growing up ungrateful. Parents need to teach them values as they shower such gifts on them.

However, if children are only showered with expensive toys, then there is a risk that they will grow up thinking that only expensive toys are good and that they don’t have to be grateful for the cheaper ones.

“Then you are teaching the wrong values and the children pick that up. That is one of the things that results in kids not valuing what they have.

“Buying things for kids is fine, it’s just what message that gets across to the kids,” says Tan.

Similarly, parents should be role models for their children because children learn from what they see.

Tan explains that children watch how their parents treat others and they will emulate what they see. Parents should then be careful of what they are unconsciously teaching their children through their actions. In fact, they can even consciously teach their children to respect others and be thankful to them.

“You can say, we should thank Kakak (in this case, the helper) for helping us cook tonight, and things like that. If the mum and dad don’t show it, the children will never know that this is an act of gratitude. Then the children will grow up feeling entitled and think Kakak is supposed to do the work.

“A sense of entitlement comes when children have not been taught how to appreciate. There are a lot of teaching moments as your children grow up.

“This is something children will pick up from adults around them, like being nice to people and being kind. Children will model what they see,” says Tan.

She explains that gratitude is also about teaching children to be grateful for what they have instead of always wanting more.

A family that is poorer can also bring up their children to learn gratitude in the sense that they have limited food and things, but they’re happy.

Monkey see, monkey do

“If you want children to be kind and generous, to be grateful, you need to start with parenting yourself first. You need to have your own self-awareness. If you are a parent who always complains about your children not being grateful for all the things you buy for them, then you have to stop and think, ‘what did I do?’ Did you instil a value of materialistic meaning to your children, or what did you do to make your children see toys as just toys and with no value to them.

“You can instil meaning in the toys, that toys need to be taken care of,” says Tan. She explains that if children don’t know how to appreciate a toy and just end up breaking it, then they should be taught the consequences of their actions. If you just keep replacing the toy, then you would be teaching them not to value the toy.

“When they learn to appreciate toys, then they would take care of them and they would be thankful to whoever bought the toys for them,” says Tan.

Teaching appreciation

Apart from teaching children to say thank you and modelling gratitude, it also helps to explain to them why they should be grateful for something.

For example, when giving a child a book, you wouldn’t just say it’s an expensive book, take care of it well. It’s better to explain why they should take care of it – perhaps because Grandpa went to China and bought it, then carried it back in the plane, or because it was a hard to find item. Then they will learn why they need to look after the book and value it.

Tan questions what parents teach if they say it’s okay each time their children scribble on their books.

“What values are you trying to teach the children? That it’s okay to scribble on a book rather than appreciate it,” says Tan.

School-aged kids

School-aged children would understand better what a thank you means. They would know that a thank you means that they are being appreciated, validated and acknowledged.

Although bigger children understand these better, they might still need to be prompted to say thank you now and then, and reminded why they should be grateful.

Tan explains that giving school-aged children chores to complete and responsibilities also helps them understand gratitude.

If children have not been given chores or responsibilities, they won’t know the kind of hardships that others have to go through. If they have some experience with chores, it will be more meaningful to them rather than showing them pictures of homeless or starving children.

Tan points out that while parents can have some measure of control over what happens at home and how they want to teach their children gratitude, what happens at school is beyond their control.

Their children might see others scribbling on their books and ask why they can’t do the same. Tan believes that in such situations, parents can only explain why it is wrong. If their children choose to follow what their friends are doing and scribble on their books at school, they will just have to face the consequences.

“Sometimes making the mistake teaches them to grow and puts meaning into the word gratitude. I know parents are reluctant to let their children fall and make mistakes, but sometimes that’s what it takes for them to learn,” reveals Tan.

Parents can also bring their children to a home for less fortunate children so they can see that other kids don’t have much in terms of clothes and toys. When they return home, parents can then ask their children if they want to donate their toys to the children in that home. It is important to let the children pick what they themselves want to give away, as it becomes more meaningful then.

Family activities

Tan says parents can even introduce a gratitude journal for their kids, where they can write down what they are grateful for. Younger kids who can’t write yet can draw what they are grateful for. These are all acts to acknowledge and appreciate what they have.

Parents can also start a family practice of leaving post-it notes to say thank you to each other, for example a mother thanking her child for being nice to the child next door. So, the child is complimented for being friendly and he feels appreciated.

You can also have all family members write what they are thankful for today and put it up somewhere in the home.

At the end of the day, it also helps you know what’s going on with your children and what’s going on with the family. By doing this activity, you know that the family is aligned and your values are the same.

Tan warns parents not to force their children to write thank you notes as this will not help them understand or value it. In addition, their children will not want to do it in future.

“It has to come from the heart. If someone gives your child a toy, after saying thank you, you can ask your child to draw a thank you note or a thank you picture, or bake cookies as thank you. It’s an act to show gratitude,” says Tan.

She advises parents against doing the thank you acts for their children.

“It’s faster if we do it ourselves, but if the children are involved in baking a thank you cookie, for example, it has more meaning and the children learn that this is what gratitude is. So, they know when someone gives them a present, they bake cookies to say thank you. When they grow up, it becomes a part of them, and a habit,” says Tan.

Teenage years

She doesn’t believe it’s ever too late to teach gratitude, it just gets tougher to make it a habit when your children are already teenagers.

In the teen years, children should have chores and responsibilities and parents can increase their responsibilities and explain to them what they should be grateful for.

“If the child has been taught from a young age, when they turn into teenagers, they would understand better,” says Tan.

She explains that inculcating gratitude in children comes down to diligence in reminding the children about being grateful and what they should be grateful for and practising it until it becomes a habit.

Conclusion

“Research shows that when you have gratitude you are happier, and not the other way around,” reveals Tan.

She encourages parents to show their children how to be grateful and appreciate the people around them. That means saying thank you to the cleaners and the guards you see, even if you receive odd looks in return.

While you may not realise it, your children are observing and learning how to treat others.

Parents should also be mindful that saying thank you is not just for the adults.

Tan suggests that parents thank their children, too. “Some parents think that they shouldn’t have to say thank you because the children are supposed to do their chores, for example. You can say thank you to other people, but you can’t say thank you to your own children? That’s where you have to stop and think.

“It’s better if parents can show that thank you comes from both sides.”