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4 Ways to Teach Kids to be Grateful

December 1, 2013 | by Adina Soclof, MS. CCC-SLP

How parents can teach their kids to curb their drive to acquire and appreciate what they have.

Parents are often shocked at their kids’ lack of gratefulness. And when Hanukkah comes around and kids have gotten all their presents, their bratty, entitled behavior can be even more noticeable.

Parents are confused: “Why aren’t my kids happy with what they have?” “Why this incessant need for more?” Why are they so ungrateful?”

Wanting and desiring things is a very human trait. We have basic drives and one of them is the drive to acquire. This drive is what ultimately causes us to be curious about our world. It fuels our ambitions and makes us passionate about life. But left to its own devices without any attempt to rein it in can lead to unhappiness and dissatisfaction in life.

Our job as parents is to channel their desires into normal proportions by not giving our children everything they ask for.

This is what we are seeing in our children. It is the drive to acquire in an unadulterated form. It is quite normal for kids to want things and because of their poor impulse control they need to have it right now. Our job as parents is to channel their desires into normal proportions by not giving our children everything they ask for.

What about teens? Haven’t they grown out of this?

Teens are also still learning to curb their drive to acquire. Not only that, studies have shown that keeping a gratitude journal helps most adults and even college students feel happier and more grateful. But when those same studies were repeated on teens, there was no significant increase in their happiness or their ability to be happy for what they have.

Experts suggest the reason behind this. Being grateful for what one has means that you are beholden to the people who give you so much; in a teen’s case those people are their parents. Teens are in the process of individuation, trying to find themselves, and this often results in pushing their parents away. Their very real need for independence means that they would rather feel self-reliant than grateful to the adults in their life.

So how can we effectively teach our kids to appreciate what they have?

Here are 4 simple ways to help teach our kids to be grateful:

1. Respect their struggle and learn to say no:

When children and teens are asking us for the latest electronic game, toy or stuffed animal, we don't need to get upset with them for their endless, insatiable desires. It’s normal. Understand this hunger for stuff that your children exhibit. Instead of getting upset when they start in with their complaints and requests, view them with compassion. It is very hard to want things that you can't have. However, we need to remember that we do not need to give in to their urgent pleas. We are the ones responsible for helping them channel their desires into normal proportions. We can and should say no. If they hear that you actually care about how they feel, they will be able to accept your "no" gracefully.

It can sound like this:

Child: “Why can’t I have the newest ipod? All my friends have them! Why do I always have to be the odd man out!”
Parent: You sound frustrated, you really would like that new ipod. It can be hard to want things and not get them. Sadly, you will not be getting a new ipod.”

2. Redirect inappropriate behavior:

“You bought me a green notebook! I asked for red!”
"But this isn't my favorite flavor ice cream!"
"I told you to pick me up at 1pm and you were late!"

Although they might sound bratty and spoiled, we want to avoid labeling our kids in such negative ways. We need to recognize that most kids and teens have a hard time understanding another's feelings. This makes them look selfish. They also don't have the easiest time regulating their feelings, so when they are disappointed, (by not getting their favorite ice cream, or the red notebook) they may just blurt out exactly what they are feeling.

We need to train our kids to act appropriately and respectfully to us. We also need to teach them to express their disappointment and their needs in a polite way. We can also point out how their behavior affects others.

Teach them to be grateful instead of entitled. You can gently say: "I expect when I buy you a notebook, even if it isn’t the color you like, that you say thank you."

Teach them to express their disappointment and needs. You can empathize and state your expectations and model respectful language: "You sound disappointed about the ice cream. However, when someone buys you something you need to say thank you. Next time this happens you can say, ‘Thanks Mom, next time you go, can you get me chocolate?’"

Teach them to understand how their behavior affects others. You can talk about your feelings, empathize and model respectful language: "I feel frustrated when I am spoken to in this way. I am sorry for being late, I am sure you were worried. Next time, you can say: ‘Mom, I worry, when you don’t come on time. Please let me know if you are going to be late…’”

Make sure to teach your young children to say thank you. If they balk in front of the overbearing relatives or the store clerk, pull them aside and gently say, “I know its uncomfortable to say thank you, but I know you want to be polite and that is the polite thing to do.”

Since my husband is the primary breadwinner in our family, whenever I go on a shopping trip with my kids I have them call my husband to say thank you for what they have bought. I explain, “Daddy works hard everyday so we can buy the things we need, let’s give him a call to say, thank you.”

3. Talk about what you are grateful for:

Have you ever given this lecture to your kids: “You should appreciate what you have, there are people starving in Africa! There are children who are just happy to play with sticks and rocks!” This tactic just makes kids feel guilty, defensive, and angry, not more grateful.

It’s more effective if we talk about ourselves and what we appreciate.

The other day, I received a phone call from someone who was collecting tzedakah for a family that has fallen on some difficult times. I got off the phone visibly distressed and my daughter asked what was wrong. I told her that there was a family that was having some sad problems and they needed tzedakah. “When I hear stories like these I just thank God for all we have,” I said to her. “I feel so grateful for our loving, healthy family.”

The indirect lessons taught through our own actions and words pack a bigger punch then a moral lecture.

4. Be a role model:

Children do as we do, not as we say. We need to check our own actions first. Are we acting in grateful ways?

Do you:

  • Say thank you to the postman, the store clerk, and your friends.
  • Thank your spouse for making dinner, taking out the garbage, cleaning a clogged drain or for making the phone call to Aunt Ethel, something you really didn’t want to do.
  • Complain about all the things you don’t have.
  • Run out to buy the latest gadget or fashion accessory?
  • Enjoy the simple beauty around you and share it with your children. The sunsets, the sun shining on the snow, laughing babies and blossoming trees.

Creating an environment in your home where kids see a living example of gratefulness will go a long way in teaching your kids to appreciate what they have.

Hanukkah is a time of miracles. Yes, it might seem impossible but kids can learn to be grateful with what they have when we learn respect their struggle and say no, redirecting their inappropriate behavior, avoiding the lecture and being a role model of appreciation.


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