What does gratitude mean to children?
Well, nothing! Yeah, really - it means nothing to children under 7 years old. That’s the phase that they’re in and it’s perfectly natural. The first 6 years of a young life are spent getting to know who they are, understanding their bodies and their feelings, figuring out the world they live in. And as far as they know, and you can attest to this, everything they see is theirs. And if it’s not, how come?
But no, this is not the point of view of a self-centered egotist. This is the point of view of a child. The job of parents is to coax them out of this very limited understanding of how things actually work in our world. And it’s a matter of modelling constantly, using kind words, showing generosity and gratitude with words and actions. It’s one of those life lessons you can’t get from a book or from someone forcing you to say “Thank you” or yelling “Give it back, you have to learn to share!” Modeling compassion and gratitude helps kids begin to understand not just what means, but how it’s beneficial.
Here are some ways we can teach children about gratitude:
Say polite and kind words regularly
“Thank you” when your child does something for you like passing something on the table or bringing you something from the other room.
As a prompt, say “You’re welcome, Mommy” after you tell them “Thank you.” This is more effective than demanding “Say you’re welcome.”
Explain what you are saying
“I say thank you when you do something kind or helpful because I appreciate you.”
You can reinforce these manners in a pretend game, like having tea with their stuffed dolls. “Mr. Rabbit, can you please pass the sugar? Why thank you, Mr. Rabbit.” To which Mr. Rabbit replies, in his own voice of course, “You’re welcome, Mom.”
Do kind things for people in your community
Don’t stress - these can be simple, like opening a door for someone at the bank, bringing your neighbor or friend a baked good they like when they’re having a hard time. The key here is showing them the gratitude of others. Children don’t understand the value of the things or time or people they enjoy because they haven’t been exposed to the possibility of other people’s experiences. This is why empathy is such an important foundation for so much socioemotional development.
When your child is crying about something they don’t want to do, it’s best to say something like “I see that you’re upset. I’m sorry that you’re upset, but we have to follow the rules and (go to bed or clean up).” It is always good to use gentle, validating language when they are crying over something because showing empathy is the quickest way for all that upset and crying to stop. And don’t we want it to stop? You bet! Sometimes they just need to know that you hear and see them and you feel bad too, but the rules have to be followed. Expressing boundaries and showing behavioral limits doesn’t mean anger or upset need to be expressed.
Coach them to recognize the things they’re happy to have
In order to be grateful, we first need to use acknowledgment. Kids don’t recognize their privileges because they don’t know that they are privileges. You can simply prompt them to express what makes them happy, then ask why. When they do, explain that those feelings are called gratitude.
All these actions model compassion that, if done consistently, will become part of their vocabulary too. That is how we teach gratitude to children, by living it in front of them.
For more fun gratitude activities, go here.