As brightly colored gifts pile up under the tree, and kids start dreaming of Santa, parents’ minds are filled with a certain type of anxiety: Will my child be gracious if the toy they receive is a flop? Will they appreciate the things that aren’t wrapped up with a bow?
Set expectations early
Gratitude has two aspects to it: expression and experience. Many parents, in an effort to teach good manners, focus on the first one. It’s important; it can be embarrassing when kids don’t say thank you or give a gift only cursory attention.
Oftentimes, issues with gifts can be headed off by reminding children of your expectations beforehand and letting them know that presents that aren’t a good fit can be exchanged later. Kids who are unable to handle a disappointment can be separated from the gift exchange for a while. Getting upset with or shaming a child for not being gracious is never helpful, as this tends to add to their distress rather than change their behavior.
Nurture the emotion within
However, saying “thank you”—even if it’s for an ugly sweater—is not the same as true gratitude. True gratitude is also an experience or a feeling that comes from within. It’s an emotion, not a behavior. And while it’s extremely valuable, it takes more effort to foster.
Like most things with raising children, teaching them how to feel grateful takes time, patience, and adaptability. Because children naturally imitate adults, I’ve found that the most effective way to instill a sense of gratitude in kids is to model it in your own life. During the 41 years I’ve spend in the health field, my families have shared some unique and fun ways they’ve done this.
Start an all-year gratitude habit
One family started a daily dinner routine where everyone shared something that they were grateful for. The parents used the opportunity to provide examples of all the things they considered gifts.
It’s often easier for kids to appreciate physical items, yet it’s the intangible presents—such as someone taking the time to help us with a job, watch a movie with us, or share our joy and pain—that often matter the most. Being able to recognize both types of gifts is critical to creating the types of strong relationships people need in life.
Invent a new family tradition
Another family made a holiday tradition out of sharing things they appreciated about each other. Once a month at dinner, each person wrote down something they were grateful for and the name of the person involved. They kept the notes secret until Christmas Eve when they read their “gratitudes” to the entire family.
Use gratitude as a bridge
Finally, one stepparent used gratitude to bring his blended family closer together. The children’s father had passed away several years previously and he had married their mother. Relationships between the stepdad and the kids were strained. One Christmas, he put a letter to the deceased father on the tree. The kids were crazy with curiosity, but had to wait until all the other Christmas gifts were opened before seeing the contents.
It was worth the wait. Inside the envelope was a letter of gratitude highlighting how much the children had enriched his life and how grateful he was to be a part of their family. He thanked the deceased father for that gift and wrote that he should be proud of his children. There was not a dry eye in the room at the end of the reading.
By modeling gratitude and kindness, and by equipping kids with the tools they need to be thankful for gifts in all their forms, parents can help their children be appreciative during the holidays and beyond.
David McWherter is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner serving children, adolescents, and kids with autism spectrum disorders.