Feature

Teaching children to be thankful requires more than words

By
From the October 2009 edition
Reminding kids to say "thank you" is almost second nature for many parents. But teaching kids to be thankful takes more than verbal reminders - it's a continuous challenge that should start when children are small.

Thanksgiving is the ideal time to begin the practice in your home. Helping children learn to appreciate their blessings and to show appreciation to the people who care for them will enrich their lives. Use the upcoming holiday to teach children lifelong values and courtesies.

"Parents teach their kids to say 'thank you' as a matter of politeness," said Richard Eyre, who wrote the book Teaching Children Values with his wife, Linda. "They don't teach them to mean it." True gratitude is demonstrated by showing appreciation, added Teri Bennett, the children's ministry director at the Church Next Door in Columbus. "Saying 'thank you' can go a long way." 

Parents who want their children to develop a sense of gratitude need to pay careful attention to their own behavior, initiate conversations about important character traits and promote community service.

Teaching children to be thankful helps them resist their natural urge to be self-centered and self-absorbed, said Cheryl C. DoBroka, an associate professor of education at Capital University. "Children can be guided to consider other people and their needs as well as their own," said DoBroka, who works with Camp Fire USA to develop and present Kids of Character, a literature-based, diversity program that helps kids learn values.

Thankfulness is an important character trait that allows young people to develop meaningful relationships with others, DoBroka said. It's important for children to appreciate the good in their lives, added Eyre, who lives in Salt Lake City. "Thankfulness is directly related to happiness."

Eyre, DoBroka, Bennett and Sue Bobson, a parent service specialist at Action for Children, offered Columbus Parent Magazine the following advice on how to teach thankfulness to children of all ages. Many of the ideas - with a few simple variations - can work for children of all ages.


Preschoolers
Begin teaching children to say 'please' and 'thank you' as soon as they're able to talk. As their vocabulary increases, encourage them to add what they're thankful for. Have them tell the librarian, "Thank you for reading me that story," or say to a friend's mother, "Thank you for inviting me to play."

"Most kids think [saying] thank you is like saying 'hello' or 'goodbye,'" Eyre said. "They don't think of it as expressing gratitude for something."

Have children send thank-you notes before they can write. Encourage them to mail pictures as a thank-you for nice deeds or gifts.

Show your children the value of a thank-you by saying it to them. Express gratitude when they behave well, put their clothes away or treat their siblings well. "Tell your kids, 'This is what I want,' and praise them for that," Bobson said. "Kids will always do what earns them praise."


Elementary-age children
Introduce children to community service at a young age. Elementary students can donate toys to hospitalized children, collect coats for a homeless shelter, or operate a lemonade stand to raise money for their favorite cause.

Talk with your kids about the things for which you are grateful, Bobson said. Children need reminders that in-town grandparents, good neighbors and helpful teachers are blessings that should be appreciated, she said.

Bennett offered an idea for children who don't appreciate their parents or their home life. She suggested a take on the movie Freaky Friday, in which a mother and daughter switch bodies for a day. Tell your children that for one day they will have to do all the jobs that Mom or Dad typically do to help the kids. An afternoon of folding laundry, housecleaning or cooking dinner should help them count their blessings.


Middle school-age children
Hold a family meeting and identify some causes or organizations in your community that you'd like to help. Schedule a monthly activity for your family to assist those agencies. "It should be a year-round thing," Bennett said. "Think about it at Thanksgiving and execute it all year long."

Encourage youngsters to write thank-you notes to community leaders or volunteers who are working to improve their town, state or country. "You're being thankful because they help your community, or they make America a great place to live," Bennett said.

Help children show their appreciation for coaches and community leaders who support sports activities. Organize a field clean-up and ask team members to stay after practice to pick up trash or litter around the ball field. Thanking coaches and lending a hand with equipment also are good habits to develop.


High school-age students
With teenagers, it's especially important that parents practice what they preach, Bennett said.

"You set the example," she said. "If you are grateful and you show gratitude in your life, it makes an impression on them."

Teenagers can learn to appreciate what they have by giving it up. A day without a cell phone, television, or the car can help them realize how nice those things are, she said. It's important to emphasize that you're asking them to give something up - not as a punishment, but as a way to learn something, Bennett said.

Volunteer opportunities also are important at this age, she said. It's a good idea for teenagers to be exposed to people who are less fortunate. They can do this by volunteering at a hospital or homeless shelter or other community service agency. "Make it tangible to them," she said. "Don't just talk at teenagers, show them."


Melissa Kossler Dutton has worked as a reporter for more than a decade. She's a frequent contributor to a variety of Ohio publications. She lives in Bexley with her husband and two sons.