Keep perspective. A big hurdle for parents is setting aside their own expectations and recognizing their child's actual capabilities. When it comes to gratitude, many parents will say, “At least you have food to eat and a roof over your head”. Most young children aren't cognitively capable of truly grasping complex ideas like gratitude, at least how adults conceptualize gratitude.
Yes, you want your 5 year-old to walk into the bedroom and genuinely say thanks for food, clothes, and drinkable water. It's just not going to happen. So shift your expectation and recognize that a “thank you” and “please” are also expressions of gratitude. It's not where you ultimately want to be, but it's a good start.
Be a role model. Kids are always watching and absorbing all that parents do. That's one of the reasons why parenting is the hardest job you'll ever have. Want your kids to be grateful? Show them how. We teach our kids how to throw a ball and color inside the lines. So teach them how to express gratitude by expressing gratitude on a daily basis. This exercise will not only teach your kids about gratitude, it will teach (remind) you too.
Consider if you are giving your child a chance to show gratitude. It's possible that you give your child everything that they want, so instead of becoming grateful your child may be more demanding or entitled.
Reward moments of gratitude. If and when your child does say “thank you” or exhibits any gratitude, big or small, take a moment and praise them. You don't have to throw a party. A hug, hi-5, or return thank you will suffice. Recognize their effort, you'll get more of it. On a side note, the actual expression of gratitude can be the secret to happiness.
Nurture empathy. If you want your child to really get a sense of gratitude, then continue to develop their sense of empathy. Without this emotional component, children will express gratitude because they think they are supposed to, not because they want to.
Less explanation, more emotion. We all too often give reasons why our kids should be grateful. This is effective for some kids, but most things in our lives have a more resounding impact when our emotions are stirred. So focus on the emotions underlying gratitude. Ask your child emotionally-driven questions like:
How would you feel if you had no toys?
What if you lived in a place where you couldn't go outside and play?
How should we thank mommy for this delicious lunch?
Your child's response to these or similar questions will let you know where they are in their cognitive development and in understanding the essence of gratitude.
Don't expect immediate results. Personal growth is a process. If you find yourself frustrated that you aren't seeing immediate results, give yourself a reality check and your child some time.
Start family traditions. It's interesting that most families save expressing thanks for the dinner table on Thanksgiving. Considering giving thanks during dinner on a daily basis. If your family is religious/spiritual, incorporate gratitude into your daily prayer.
Want your kids to be grateful for the roof over their heads? Camp in the backyard or go for a walk on a cold day. Don't punish them, but use these and other creative ideas to start a dialogue about how nice it is to sleep on a bed or have a home to escape a cold or rainy day.
Want your kids to see the homeless and less fortunate? Be careful. They may see something traumatic or may become scared. You know your kid the best so go with what you think is right. If they are too young or sensitive, have them put together a basket of food or clothes that can be donated to help the less fortunate.
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