Raising Grateful Kids: Teaching Kids to Be Thankful in a Selfish World
Children aren’t born grateful. We come into this world focused on our own needs. It’s basic survival. Babies cry when hungry, tired, cold, or wet. They cry loud and they cry often until those needs are met. Adults are hardwired to respond to a crying baby. When they cry, it triggers the physical and neurological flight or fight response in adults. Babies want, they cry, and adults respond as if it was life or death until the baby is happy. The system works, for a while.
It’s not life or death: It’s a poker game
Thankfully, most babies in the Western World have their needs met every day. They are fed as soon as they fuss. We spend millions developing the perfect no leak, dry feel diapers. Cribs are child safe, pillow free, and have video baby monitors with direct feeds to smart phones. It’s not life and death. And yet, we still respond biologically like it is. Our bodies trick our brains into being afraid every time we hear our baby cry. While infants, there is nothing wrong with running in the moment a baby starts to fuss. They are learning to trust you. It lays the foundation for a strong parent child bond. Go ahead, spoil them rotten.
But as your child gets older, that system starts to work against both of you. Your 3-year-old does not need a snack 2 hours after breakfast. They want one. But our parent brains are still telling us its life and death. Children who figure out that crying gets them what they want will use it, over and over again. The result is a parent constantly on edge who will give in to a child’s every whim and a child who doesn’t know how to be grateful.
So How Do We Raise Grateful Kids?
First, we must break the system. To do this we use a very simple word, no. As a teacher, best practices tell us not to use the word no. As a parent, saying no can lead to arguments we would rather avoid. But there is a difference between mindlessly saying no and using it to set a limit.
When a child is reaching for the hot stove, our first instinct is to yell no. This doesn’t actually tell a child what we want them to do, and, if used too much, is often ignored. That is the mindless no. It’s better to say, hands down or move away. Tell them what to do. But no is not a dirty word. It can be used to set powerful limits and help a child learn things like delayed gratification, a first step towards true gratitude.
You as the caregiver need to look at the situation and decide if a child’s demand is a need or a want. If it is a want, is it appropriate in that moment. If your child ate breakfast and is digging in their lunch box on the way to school, tell them no. Explain that food is for lunch and they need to wait. When the negotiating and begging sets in, simply say no. When it gets louder, turn on some music. You have to break the cycle and teach your child what no means. It seems counterintuitive, but that same trust you built by meeting your infant’s every need, is built up even further by setting limits and sticking to them.
Stop Bribing Kids
This one is hard, because bribes work. If they didn’t companies wouldn’t hand out bonuses and stores wouldn’t have sales. This is called extrinsic motivation and is the proverbial dangled carrot on a stick. But the thing about extrinsic motivators is you need to use them judiciously. If everyone wins a medal, it loses its luster. Why work harder if the kid who didn’t even participate gets one too? Promising your child a treat each time you go to the store or need them to listen doesn’t motivate them to do the right thing. What it does is raise the ante. Your child is getting rich, while you are struggling to stay in the game.
Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do something because it is the right thing to do. Children are not born with the desire to do the right thing. They are designed to survive and have their needs met. To raise kids with aspirations and the drive to reach their goals, they must learn the intrinsic value of a thing. Instead of promising a toy on the next trip to the grocery store, try giving your child a mini list of items. Explain to them that families take care of each other and buying food is one way to do that. Make them part of the process instead of bribing them to “be good” while you drag them along. Teach your child to be part of a team. Modeling working together for a common good is the next step towards grateful kids.
Give Kids Ownership
Think of the last time you accomplished something you really worked hard for. It is immensely satisfying to set a goal, do the work, and finish the job. But what about the time you were given someone else’s to-do list? My guess is you were exhausted when you finished, especially if the other person took all the credit. When children are not invested, they are doing someone else’s work. They are less motivated and more likely to just give up. Give a child ownership and they will work tirelessly and with a happy heart.
In my classroom we are a team. Our room is a space we share; therefore, you make a mess, you clean it up. I have a basket filled with small dustpans and hand brooms. After snack or lunch, the kids know to go clean up their space and pack up. These kids will sweep the whole room if you let them. And that’s the reward. They are so proud of doing it themselves and being a part of our team that I don’t have to bribe them with treats.
Taking pride in your work leads to valuing the work of others. Valuing others is the next step on the path towards true gratitude. Set family rules and give children responsibilities. They need jobs that are both individual and shared. The reward is a job well done.
Model True Giving
In todays world of Volunteer Vacations and Gala fundraisers, it’s easy to think you are setting an example of giving. But are you really? Mr. Rogers said it best, “The real issue in life is not how many blessings we have, but what we do with our blessings. Some people have many blessings and hoard them. Some have very few and give everything away.” When what we give costs us nothing personally, we are not really giving from our heart. Bidding on expensive items at a fundraiser is fun and exciting, we get rewarded with a new toy and the recognition from our peers. Don’t get me wrong, fundraisers like this are hugely important. But that won’t teach your child to be grateful.
That time you took off your coat and wrapped it around your child or friend, that is giving. When we let a mom struggling with a baby in her arms go ahead of us in the line at the grocery store, that is compassion. When we take what we have and set some of it aside for others, that is generosity. Children learn what it means to give when they see it modeled every day. Acts of service and love, done without the promise of reward. When we give from the heart our children will follow our lead. A generous heart is a thankful one. A generous child is a thankful child.
The Giving Manger
Instead of focusing on things this holiday season and that naughty elf up there on the shelf, why not make it about giving from the heart. I highly recommend starting a new tradition in your home called the “Giving Manger”. This beautifully illustrated book and tiny manger, take the focus off of what we can get at Christmas, and puts it back on what we can give.
Raising grateful kids isn’t about how much you have. It’s about how you live. So start living a grateful life and watch the blessings flow. You’ll find you are a more grateful person and your kids will be too.