Q. Our two kids are ages seven and 12, and they want so many things. They see something a friend or classmate has, and they want it. They see something on TV, and they want it. My husband gives them everything they ask for, and even some expensive items they don’t ask for. They don’t thank him or care for their belongings. I’m worried our kids will go through life wanting us to continue to provide everything for them, with nothing in return. How can we get our children to be grateful and loving kids?
A. Most of the time when you want your children (or anyone else) to change it means you must change first. You and your husband are your children’s role models. You need to model gratitude and to guide your children to do activities that support an attitude of gratefulness. Our kids haven’t had to walk a mile to get water, like people in other parts of the world. They have ready access to food, water, shelter, and education. And there is no end of stuff to get. Let me assure you that in a life of plenty, kids can learn to be grateful. Here are some suggestions:
- Keep the talk going about things you are grateful for. At meals or at bedtime have everyone name a few things they are grateful for. Keep a family notebook where everyone can write down something for which they are grateful every day. Some children like having their own gratitude journal. You could also ask your children to e-mail you daily about what they are grateful for. If they’re stuck, offer suggestions like clean air to breathe; good friends to spend time with; or a warm home.
- Encourage thank you notes for gifts. This reminds the child that gifts come from people who care and don’t just magically appear. What if a child doesn’t like a gift? Encourage them to say “thank you” anyway. I’ve stopped giving gifts to people who don’t acknowledge my gifts in some way such as a phone call, letter, e-mail, or text. I do make a few exceptions for people dealing with grief or serious illness.
- Tell your kids “thank you” and tell them why you are grateful to have them as your children. Saying “thank you” and “good job” is not necessary for every small thing a child does because it soon loses its impact. Instead of saying “Good job! You picked up a paper clip,” you could say “Thank you for picking up. I like when you help.” You can also tell your kids you’re grateful for their smiles, their enthusiasm, their sticking to a task, or other important good behavior.
- Have your children earn some of the money for something they want. Earning money helps children realize what others do for them. For example, I had to earn part of the money for a bicycle I got for Christmas in about 3rd grade. I knew my Dad had to work hard, like I did, to get the money. I bought a combination lock, and to this day I can tell you what the combination was. That bicycle was a prized, well-cared for, and well-loved possession.
- Encourage your children to do good deeds. Take the children with you to volunteer helping others. Some families build their holidays around volunteering and gift giving for families in need. Volunteering builds empathy and gratefulness. When volunteering, people are able to witness the gratitude of those in need, which is powerful.
- Be on alert for teachable moments. If your child notices someone who doesn’t have money for lunch or only has two changes of clothes, take time to talk about what is important. Encourage kids to make friends based on common interests, not just based on similar income brackets. Talk about how some children and families will always have more, and some will have much less.
- Have a talk with your husband about not giving the children everything they ask for. A study by Dr. Robert A. Emmons at the University of California, Davis found that experiencing gratitude can increase happiness levels by around twenty-five percent. He found that people who practice gratitude have better self-esteem, empathy, and optimism. It’s also been found in studies that kids who practice gratitude have more positive attitudes around school and family. Help your husband realize the negative impact of indulging children’s wishes for new things.
I hope I’ve convinced you to start some gratitude work in your family immediately. The holiday season is a perfect time to begin.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT is an Austin-based psychotherapist.