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Raising a Child Who's Thankful (Not Spoiled)

As a parent I find few things more troubling than watching one of my children  -- children who have been born to every advantage of a middle-class American life  -- act like an eye-rolling, foot-stomping Bratz doll. The worst part about it: I've done much to encourage it. But it's not just my kids. I often see other children behaving like selfish, entitled creatures who want more, more, more, and don't see how lucky they are to have what they've got. Any parent whose child has cried because she was told she couldn't have a particular new toy, or shirt, or cereal knows the feeling.

We have coconspirators, of course. Blame TV, blame peers, blame our status-seeking culture. Heck, blame grandparents for deluging kids with gifts. But no matter how it happened, two-thirds of parents would call their own kids spoiled, to say nothing of everyone else's, according to a Time/CNN survey.

Luckily, you can implement a cure that doesn't involve restructuring society. It doesn't even require restructuring your family. It consists of a series of small-but-significant lifestyle tweaks that won't take much time or cost a penny. Plus, you can implement the strategies immediately  -- today, if you want. Just don't expect immediate results. Like most of parenting, this is a long-term project. To get started:

1: Make Manners Count

Three little words have magical power. Of course, "I love you" from a tyke can melt hearts. But I'm talking three other words: "Please" and "Thank you."

Toddlers as young as 18 months begin to have the mental chops to grasp the rules of politeness. "That's when a child starts to make value judgments and can be taught that saying 'please' and 'thank you' is now expected," says Charles Thompson, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology and counseling at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Two-year-olds are classically rebellious and may do the wrong thing on purpose, but 3-year-olds can be parent-pleasing politeness machines, he says. They don't have to fully understand the implications of what they're saying  -- the point is to begin to get them in the habit so eventually they'll say those magic words automatically. Later on you can make sure they understand why the words are important.

"I have to remind Samantha, who is five, to say those critical words. I prompt her with, 'What do you say?'" admits Susan Kushner, a mom of two in Princeton, New Jersey. I'm still waiting for a breakthrough with my daughters, ages 5 and 8. God knows I reinforce until blue in the face, but they often forget the magic words. Aren't I due their thanks for shopping, cleaning, cooking, serving every day? Can't they see how hard I work for them?

Apparently, no. At their ages, they don't yet feel my pain. "Lack of spontaneous empathy is a huge block for kids this age," says Thompson. "Most aren't capable of really appreciating the effort, time, and cost of your preparing a meal, for example, until around age 10 or so." Which is not to say that we should wait until then to lay the groundwork  -- get cracking at birth. "Eventually, they'll catch on," he says.

"You'd think everyone knows that adults should model good behavior," says Siobhan Carroll, mom of two boys, Eoin and Joseph, ages 3 and 1, in San Jose, California. "But so few do. When I go to the store, I rarely hear people say 'please' and 'thank you.' They say 'I want,' or 'give me.'" Of course we can't control how other people speak, but we can make it very clear what our standards are.

One ritual that helps to do that: the family dinner. It's a perfect time to (1) model manners, (2) correct and reinforce proper manners in your kids, and (3) build a framework for empathy by enlisting them to help shop, cook, serve, and clean up.

Since food is symbolic of plenty and well-being, this is also the time to encourage your child to give thanks for what he has. Whether you want him to thank God in the traditional saying of grace, or just express his gratefulness in general, is immaterial. What's important is that you help him appreciate the many people who helped put that food on the table  -- the farmer who tended the peas all season, the laborer who picked them, the mommy who bought them, the daddy who cooked and served them.

Contributing editor Valerie Frankel's most recent novel, The Not-So-Perfect Man, was published last January.