How to Teach Gratitude

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It’s one thing to have your kids go around the Thanksgiving table and politely say what they’re grateful for once a year. But teaching the fine art of gratitude on a daily basis? That’s the real challenge — especially when so many of us parents are still struggling with the concept ourselves.

“As far as being gracious and appreciative, that comes from the example we set,” Wendy Mogel, clinical psychologist and author of the bestselling “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” tells Yahoo Parenting. “Are we criticizing them or their school? Are we gossiping? It’s important to think about how much we demonstrate gratitude in front of our children. To be grateful to our children and in front of our children — instead of demanding reflexive appreciation — is the best lesson.”

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With that idea in mind (the good ole “practice what you preach”), Yahoo Parenting presents to you the gift of gratitude lessons:

Accept that they won’t stop wanting things. “We don’t want to be mad at the children for their longings, which are a form of passion and desire,” Mogel says. “Plus, the have been brainwashed by advertising.” Instead of getting angry about your little one’s burning desire for that singing Elsa doll, acknowledge it, and then suggest putting it on the Christmas or birthday list. Or, better, yet, suggest she purchase it with her own allowance or gift money. “You’ll find the desire evaporates very quickly,” Mogel notes with a giggle.

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Resist spoiling. “If your child has an expectation that they’re coming home with something every time you both go to the store, that’s how you know you’ve crossed the line,” notes Jill Rigby Garner, parenting expert and author of “Raising Unselfish Children In a Self-Absorbed World.” Instead, “Take back authority and say ‘No’,” she suggests. “Rather than worrying about their moment-to-moment happiness, focus on their full-blown joy.” Do that, Garner explains, by taking away instant gratification. To wit: When her now-grown twin boys were small, and they would go through the bank drive-thru, she would always refuse the teller’s offer of lollipops; it became such a habit, in fact, that her sons would join her in happily saying, “No thank you, not today.” But every rare once in a while, she would surprise them by saying, “Yes, that would make a nice treat today.” And they were overjoyed — and appreciative.

Teach them the power of giving. While Garner suggests not giving in to demands for treats when you’re out grocery shopping, she says that doing it sometimes is fine — but with a twist. “One day, say, ‘Why don’t you pick out two treats, and we’ll give one away.’ Give them the money in their hand to make the purchase, and then allow her to give on away to someone else right away,” she says. Whether it’s another child in the store or a person in need outside on the street, she notes, “That truly is experiential learning, because at that moment they are getting and, right away, giving. It’s a great way to instill gratefulness.” Because giving often feels better than receiving.

Point out the generosity of others. Andrea Hussong, professor of psychology of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and lead researcher of a new study, “Raising Grateful Children,” has been looking at ways that parents of kids ages 6 to 9 aim to teach gratitude. Techniques ranged from saying thanks before meals to everyone reflecting on their days together each evening. And Hussong adds her own suggestion for Yahoo Parenting: “Help a child to recognize that he or she received something, and that whomever gave her the gift or did something nice didn’t have to do that,” she says. Then ask them how they feel about it, and highlight their positive emotions, such as “I feel good.”

Understand when they’re too overwhelmed to feel thankful. Now here’s a common scenario: Your kid gets lavished with presents, either at a birthday party or family holiday gathering. And instead of being filled with thanks and appreciation, she expresses dissatisfaction over not receiving the one thing she really wanted. And you are embarrassed and frustrated by her attitude. But, Mogel points out, “She didn’t ask for all those presents. There are too many. Plus, she has fresh new longings every day, just as we do.” Garner notes that, in the case of a child acting spoiled in the midst of opening piles of birthday presents, a simple redirect could do the trick. “I would probably disrupt the moment and say, ‘you know what? We’re not going to open any more presents right now. But this is the perfect time to give your guests their favors.’”

Avoid shaming. Even when your kid is driving you bonkers, whining and demanding and never saying thanks, it’s important to keep something in mind: “Shaming a child never works,” Garner says. “Punishment makes a child feel rotten. So when you say ‘the kids in Africa have nothing,’ or ‘why are you so selfish?’ you’re setting them up to rebel, and you reinforce behavior you’re trying to change.”

Be mindful of teaching consumerism. Whenever we spend time gleefully shopping online, talking about the material items we desire, or expressing serious satisfaction over finding the object of our desire and ordering it with a swipe of our credit card (and who hasn’t done that?), we are “unwittingly and unconsciously teaching” our children how to long for more and more and more, says Mogel. A simple bit of awareness about our own behavior can go a long way.