"Clothes again?” my son wailed. “But I don’t like clothes. I want toys! Why do they always give me clothes?” he moaned, tossing his Christmas present away. Meanwhile his aunt and uncle, who spent time and money choosing the offending garment, could only watch patiently as he carried on some more. I wanted the earth to swallow me whole. I could not believe I could raise such an ungrateful child!
For many families, the holiday season reaches its highest point when everyone gets together to open their presents. It is also the time I find myself with fingers crossed behind my back, hoping my kids would remember my constant reminders -- “Say thank you,” “Show your appreciation,” “Never show disappointment” -- as relatives watch while they open their loot. Yet, every year, outbursts such as that of my son seem almost inevitable.
“It’s normal and natural for young kids to believe everyone in the world exists exclusively for their benefit,” says Deborah Spaide, author of Teaching Your Kids to Care. “Thankfulness is just not part of their job description,” she says. Kids, especially those younger than seven years, lack the developmental skills to help them understand how other people feel or how their own actions affect others. It takes years before children are able to think beyond their own wants and needs.
Throw away society These days, a child spends so many hours watching television that he is constantly bombarded with images that make it difficult for him to develop a sense of gratitude. He sees an endless variety of new toys, games, and videos and takes in hidden messages such as: “What can I get next?” and “How can I get my parents to get me what I want?”
Thumby L. Server, managing director and teacher at Toddlers Unlimited Learning Center in Alabang, laments: “Nowadays for children, life is: get-use-discard-repeat the cycle. Kids these days get things a little too easily.” Often falling prey to guilt for not spending enough time with their kids, parents give in to their kids’ demands for new toys and effects, or whatever the current craze is. She warns, “When we forget to help our children stop, appreciate, cherish and give sentimental value to gifts, then we let them live in a ‘throw-away’ society, where the only things that are special are things we want right now.”
When a child shows gratitude properly, he is demonstrating empathy, or the ability to share in another person’s thoughts and feelings. Not only is empathy crucial to a child as he grows in the world of his peers, but an empathic child logically feels more connected to his parents.
Teaching gratitude Today’s parents find that teaching kids about gratitude and empathy can be difficult. Thankfully, there are many ways to raise kids to become more appreciative and to show it. Here are some surefire strategies:
1. Teach good manners. “Teach them to say ‘thank you’ whenever he receives goods, services, or acts of kindness,” says Server. Make the connection between acts of kindness and appropriate words. You are not only teaching him good manners, you are also teaching him about empathy.
2. Don’t demand thanks. Avoid commanding your child to be courteous or withholding a gift if he doesn’t say ‘thank you.’ Remember that gratitude shouldn’t stem from shame or fear of punishment. Your child is less likely to learn this value if it is prevailed upon him, especially if he is scolded or shamed.
3. Consider the reasons behind ungrateful behavior. A child who is hungry, upset, over-stimulated or tired can hardly be expected to be on his best behavior. Take his temperament into account as well. Some kids are more outgoing and talkative and therefore more likely to express their thanks easily as opposed to a reserved child.
4. Praise empathic impulses. “In the preschool classroom,” Server explains, “we teachers embellish in order to get the point across.” They say things like, “I think that it was sweet of Alissa to share her crackers with Gabby. I know that is Alissa’s favorite snack. I’m also proud of Gabby for not forgetting to say ‘thank you.’” By making comments like this, they show everyone that they approve of these acts. The kids also become more conscious of how their generosity and appreciation affect their friends.
Likewise, parents should practice this at home, especially during moments when siblings act positively towards each other.
5. Make the child part of the gift-giving process. Take your child along as you do your Christmas gift shopping. If this is too difficult, Server suggests, “Employ your child’s help when making homemade gifts, like baked goods or home décor or simply ask him to decide which gift should go to whom.” By doing so, you make him learn to see how much of an effort it takes, and you make him more appreciative of the gifts he receives from others.
6. Train your kids to write thank-you notes. They can write notes to teachers, aunts, coaches, or anyone who gives gifts. Notes are important because they demonstrate and instill a higher level of appreciation. The child would have to think a lot more about what the person actually did for him and therefore internalize why he should be grateful. Server suggests older kids to send e-mail, phone calls or text messages, or even to make their own thank-you cards.
7. Don’t open the presents all at one go. “It is good to space gift-opening, so you have time to look at the virtues of each gift,” says Server. Be it on Christmas day or your child’s birthday, you should let your child play with, eat or try on the gift before heading on to the next one.
8. Be a role model for your children. If showing appreciation is not one of your best suits, then you can’t expect your children to be grateful either. “A parent who constantly snickers or bemoans gifts received over the holidays should be careful,” says Server. It is possible that the child will follow your example and repeat some of the unpleasant comments upon opening gifts he does not particularly like. It would be better if she hears you make such comments such as, “This shirt is a really pretty color. Nicole must have remembered how much I like blue. I’m going to give her a call to say thanks.”
Ultimately, the best way for parents to teach gratitude is the old-fashioned way -- by living it out at home. Saying “thank you” to each other and recognizing the special contributions of each family member will naturally lead children to carry the attitude of gratitude into their adult lives. And though it is easy to lose ourselves in all the revelry and gift giving that the holiday season brings, gratitude is the best gift of all.