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Young boy (6-7) about to destroy toy car, girl (3-4) crying, mother sitting in armchair

Is Gratitude Your Child’s Attitude?

You beam with pride that your children say “thank you” when dinner is served. The hours you devote to helping with homework, shlepping between various extracurriculars and tending to their emotional needs feel appreciated. But are they?

During the December holiday season, we are bombarded with talk of “being thankful,” yet it’s a difficult concept to quantify in children. How can we tell if the values we try and instill translate into grateful children? In other words, is their attitude genuine gratitude?

It’s great when kids are polite; when they employ words or phrases like “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me,” we beam with pride. When children demonstrate respect, it does show they have been taught the appropriate things to say, but that doesn’t also mean they’re grateful. Sorry.

Here are a couple example scenarios that can help gauge how effectively you are instilling values that foster gratitude.

You’re in a toy store with your son and shopping for a present, but just for his friend. Almost inevitably, he asks if he can get a toy, too. Now, think about his response. Is he disappointed but accepting? Or, does he have significant difficulty accepting “no toys for you today,” throwing a tantrum after “some other time”?

That may be a sign the gratitude quotient of your parenting could use some tweaking. And, while certainly not uncommon reactions, if his response to your denial consistently triggers unreasonable protests, it’s something to think about.

Having the means to never say “no” doesn’t mean you should always say “yes.” Always buying the toy whenever he asks may seem benign, but it will lead you into the trap of always having to buy them something. Worse, you are setting up your child’s value system to always expect the toy.

A solution to this not-so-uncommon circumstance or dilemma: Set clear expectations for that day’s goals. For example, “We are going to the toy store to get presents for your friends’ birthday parties today.” Explain that if they show their best behavior and cooperation, there will be something in-store for them later. Afterward, consider taking a “special” trip to the library with them so they can checkout a book or rent a game or a movie.

When your child receives a present she already owns, does she whine and complain about it? Or, is she grateful for the gift?

Remember, there’s a difference between disappointment and ingratitude. If the whine sounds familiar, it’s not too late to remind her that a gift is a gift no matter its size or price. (Plus, a stern reminder that if she wants to continue to receive gifts in the future, she best be mentshy in the present.)

Remind her that the gift giver doesn’t necessarily know she already has that item, and that ingratitude hurts people’s feelings. Explain to her that no matter the gift, the right thing to do is smile and say “thank you,” and that the gift can often times be exchanged for something she wants.

This Chanukah, suggest to the kids they pack up a few boxes of old toys for children less fortunate, stipulating that no new gifts can be received until this task is done. Then, with their participation, go through their toys and choose ones that are both in great shape and barely used.  See how willing they are to part with them.

Hopefully, you’ll see little, if any, resistance. And, if there’s significant pushback, it’s time to offer a life lesson: Rewrap those old toys and books, and say the mantra, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” It won’t be fun, but they’ll be better people for it.

Rebecca Zusel, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker. To learn more about this and other subjects.



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