How to teach kids selflessness in a selfie world
Gratitude. It’s a word that’s everywhere during the holidays, especially during Thanksgiving season. Festive autumn décor, plans to volunteer and donations to charity all help remind us to be thankful for what we have.
But the practice of gratitude doesn’t need to be limited to the holidays, and many parents agree that thankfulness is important year-round.
“It’s hard, because we live in a world of instant gratification and kids sometimes think they should have everything at their fingertips,” says Lara Moeller, a mom of three in Dayton, Ohio. “But stopping to be grateful for what they have is something we really want our kids to learn.”
Moeller isn’t alone. According to a 2016 national survey, 92 percent of parents believe that encouraging positive character traits – like honesty, generosity, compassion and kindness – in little ones is more important than ever.
Ryan Swanson, another mom of three in Atlanta, Ga., agrees. She recalls her frustration at her son’s third birthday party, when he was more focused on the gift than the giver. “He was so fixated on the toy in the shiny package that he would rip open the tissue paper without waiting for me to read the card to find out who each gift was from,” she says.
For Debbie and Bobby Deskins, Tampa, Fla. parents of a six-year-old daughter and twin three-year-old boys, encouraging thankfulness in kids can be easier said than done.
“You want them to be happy, but you also want to create that personality trait where they’re not going to freak out when another kid has a toy they want,” Bobby Deskins says.
As any parent knows, teaching good manners is one thing. But gratitude? That requires more work.
According to experts, parents like Moeller, Swanson and the Deskins working to teach gratitude are setting their kids up for future success.
A Life Lesson
Gratitude is not just about raising a well-behaved kid. Experts say thankfulness is linked to increased happiness, self-esteem, empathy and other valuable attributes.
“The traits that embody character – compassion, gratitude, cooperation, generosity, empathy and respect – can empower children to rise above the trials they will face throughout their lives,” says Jo Kirchner, CEO of Primrose Schools®, a national early education and care provider.
And when it comes to developing thankfulness, experts say it’s never too early to start. In fact, the first five years of life are important for shaping social-emotional well-being and future success.
For the Deskins, practicing gratitude with their oldest child is paying off. “A couple of times a year we’ll tell our daughter to pick out five toys, and we take them to the consignment store or make donations to a charity for kids in need. We tell her, ‘You’ve enjoyed playing with these for a while, and now kids who aren’t as fortunate can enjoy them too.’”
“Since then, we’ve noticed her giving toys to her little brothers saying, ‘Now we all have one!’ and then looking to us for approval,” says Bobby Deskins.
“Now more than ever, children are facing challenges that can only be overcome with a strong sense of character,” Kirchner says, adding, “Ultimately, by helping them develop good character, we’re enabling them to not only lead happy, successful lives, but to also leave their mark on the world in the best way possible: through their kindness, compassion and integrity.”
Six Ways to Encourage Thankfulness in Kids
Gratitude is a learned practice. And thankfully, it’s one that parents can help teach their kids. Kirchner shares the following ideas for helping instill gratitude in children:
1. Make a gratitude ritual. Practice a regular thankfulness activity, like counting blessings at bedtime, or having family members name something they are grateful for before dinner.
2. Model gratitude. Actions speak loudly. Thank your spouse for taking the garbage out or say thank you to a restaurant employee — show gratitude in every situation. These simple acts make thankfulness a normal part of your family’s daily life.
Another tip: make eye contact and express gratitude genuinely, so your little copycat will learn to do the same!
3. Give back together. Volunteering at a local charity as a family can show kids how to help others. “We’ve made donations of coats and scarfs to kids who don’t have what we do,” says Moeller. And there are other ways to teach kids about giving back, too. For example, instead of volunteering at a local food bank or charity, you can host a family food drive at home. Have kids earn money through chores, and then encourage them to buy food for those in need. As a family, develop a shopping list, go to the store and deliver donations to a local shelter or food bank. Discuss how these charities help others in the community.
4. Say “thank you” to your child. Giving genuine gratitude to kids is just as important as modeling it. As parents, it’s easy to criticize or correct bad behavior, but it’s even more important to show your appreciation when he cooperates, shows kindness or is helpful. This will not only reinforce good behavior, but also teach an attitude of gratitude.
5. Write thank you notes. Encourage your child to write thank you notes for gifts or to a teacher or friend for doing something nice. Younger children can draw pictures to say thank you. “Not only will the recipient be touched by your gratitude, but also you and your child will feel refreshed remembering the kindness that inspired the note,” says Kirchner.
6. Read books about thankfulness. Books about gratitude are a great way to help young kids learn. Kirchner recommends Little Critter: Just So Thankful by Mercer Mayer, Biscuit is Thankful by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and Pat Schories, and I’m Thankful Each Day by P.K. Hallninan.