Teaching Character: Gratitude

by kate on February 21, 2021

Gratitude is the new attitude!

This one’s easy: say thank you. OK, it’s not that easy; just saying please and thank you isn’t going to magically teach your child to be grateful. But it will go a long way in showing what gratitude looks and sounds like.

Children have an innate awareness of the ‘good things’ in life and they relish them. Watching a butterfly flap her wings. Blah blah blah, cue the sappy muzak. You know what I mean. So that’s already there and you, as the parent just have to keep it alive. Kumbayaaa. [blech]

The hard part comes in when you look at your little one and see an ingrate instead on an angel. Because you know it happens. Dinner time - where’s the thank you? Or breakfast? Sometimes I feel like saying, “Do you know how much I’d rather be sleeping right now instead of making you pancakes?!?” But I don’t utter a word and I bet you don’t either. Let’s not forget about Christmas (or birthdays even) After ripping through a field of wrapped presents, my 4 year old asked if there were any more. I won’t even defend her by saying she liked the unwrapping as much as anything (she did though!) it’s just that she has not yet mastered gratitude.

Don’t Raise a Taker

Do you remember The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein? I swear I tear up when I read that. After my first daughter was born I sat there reading this whole book to my newborn and I couldn’t finish it without falling apart. Yes, I was hormonal. But y’all! C’mon! How that tree just gives and gives of itself, offering each little bit time and time again. Oh man. That tree was everything I wanted to be in a parent and everything I didn’t want to do as a parent. So confusing. Of course, I wanted to be a giver but I didn’t want to raise a taker.

So that brings me to one of the, possibly?, hardest things to do as a parent in order to teach gratitude. NOT give, give, give. This goes against so much of our parental instincts, doesn’t it?

Learning to Appreciate

My husband, when he was growing up, moved every year. Every single year. His parents, who showered him with love, didn’t keep a reservoir of toys, books or belongings. They couldn’t. There was no space with all that traveling. One of his (and his mom’s) favorite stories to tell was how my budding entrepreneurial husband used to collect rocks, polish them and then sell them! For 5¢ a piece. He was like 7. So he saved and saved and saved and then, when he had enough dollars, he bought a watch. A Seiko watch. And he cherished it for years.

Or how about the story of his baking. See, his mom - a health nut - only bought carob chips. You remember carob, right? The 1970s answer to chocolate only it turned out to be a) disgusting and b) filled with worse things than chocolate could ever dream of having. He hated carob. To this day, mention carob to him and he’ll wince. Physically wince. So what did he do? He taught himself to bake. He scrounged up the money (probably selling more rocks!) and bought the ingredients for brownies and baked them himself. He only ate one small brownie a day, parceling them out so he could enjoy dessert for like 2 weeks, still eating the inevitably stale and hard as hockey puck brownies.

Wait, maybe I’m talking about how to raise a hoarder?!?

Seriously, though. I’ve seen it with my own eyes: the less you automatically hand over to your kids, the less they need or even want. And, while this might be a stretch, the more grateful they might be with what they have. Somewhere on the gratitude pendulum between ingrate and Giving Tree over-giving there is a fulfilled being who doesn’t need or want anything external to make them happy because they already are internally happy. And having enough allows room for appreciation.

Be a Role Model

On to brass tacks for teaching gratitude. There is a plethora of role models when it comes to gratitude so it doesn’t have to be all on our parental shoulders. In fact, there are many divergent religions that together respect and promote full-on gratitude that you could almost say that gratitude is a universal human aspiration. Almost.

So, how to coax it out of our little cavemen toddlers (and older children, too!). Yes, there is the role model approach (see above). Be grateful yourself and express this to your children. Be careful not to smother them with the weight of your thankfullness, though.

Use Words

Another really good approach is to openly talk about people in your family you are grateful for. Or people in the world. Simply having a conversation can plant the seeds.

In a more concrete way, you could start a gratitude journal with your kids. Write down things they are grateful for - or have them do it. Oh, how wonderful would it be to look back in a year’s time and see just where that little brain was. I haven’t done this yet, but I can imagine that if I asked my girl, today, what she was thankful for she’d say ‘Pink!’

This is one of those character traits that is most like a muscle. Work it, even if just in words, and it will come to support you. Keep this in mind, too. Practicing gratitude - like in a gratitude journal - is apparently an effective tool to fight depression and boost inner happiness. Imagine equiping your little one’s tool box with that skill set, hm?

Or, if you live in Northern California, you could always visit Cafe Gratitude and order a bowl of I Am Grateful. With a side of hummus!

Next up: something that makes the world go ’round (and no, I’m not talking money…that’s not a character trait even though it’d be nice if you could, huh?)

Previous character lessons: Zest, Grit, Social Intelligence, Self-Control

photo credit: shannonkringen

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sonia's Goodie Bags February 21, 2021 at 9:33 am

We have our kids put 30% of their allowance toward a charity of their choice. Time will tell, but I hope I am instilling in them a greater purpose!

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