You are here

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.

2: Count Your Blessings--the Right Ones

When I ask my girls to count their blessings, I hear a lot about their favorite toys. This upsets me. Have I raised them to worship their (perhaps too many) possessions over people?

"There's nothing wrong with kids being grateful for material objects, as long as that doesn't supersede gratitude for the love and support of the people in their lives," says Stephen Muncie, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, New York. In a way it's only natural that children list their toys first. After all, how many times have you muttered "Say thank you" as they received one as a gift? "You might want to change the question and ask, 'Who are you thankful for?'" says Muncie. "This includes pets  -- kids always list their pets." Another question to get children thinking: What makes you sad? Whether they're big or small  -- a pet is sick, a classmate broke her arm, her cookie broke  -- contemplating the negatives may, with your help, lead kids to understand larger concepts to be thankful for as well, like good health, security, and comfort.

Muncie recommends making a ritual of the practice. Do it at least once a week. Your child can count blessings before bedtime. She can do it on the walk to school. She can thank God. She can thank her lucky stars. Come to think of it, she can thank Mom and Dad as well, who deserve some credit, especially in the pets and toys department. The goal is simply to initiate a way of thinking, a habit of thankfulness.

But if we're stressing being grateful for the people in our lives, then how do we impress upon them the value of all the things we have? Well, if a blessing is something to give thanks for, a material object is something to write a thank-you note for. Thank-you notes serve the dual purpose of defining the gift as a thing, and bolstering empathy. Be sure to explain the point of writing the note (or for pre-writers, drawing a thank-you picture), as in, "If grandma can get in her car, drive to the mall, and spend a half-an-hour looking for Magical Mermaid Barbie, the very least you can do is scratch out four sentences to say thank you." Or perhaps a less aggressive approach might work: "I'm sure Grandma would appreciate a note as much as you appreciate the toy."

3: Make Sure They Really Listen

The biggest hurdle in thankfulness training, by my lights, is that kids are so self-absorbed. They don't seem to ever be aware that parents have desires, feelings, and thoughts that have nothing to do with them. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Up to 6 or 9 months old, babies think you disappear into the ether unless you're directly in their line of sight. Toddlers think they're the center of the universe and that you're there solely to meet their needs, and even after they hit that crucial developmental threshold that makes them capable of empathy, they don't automatically utilize it. After a (short) lifetime of being made to feel special and talented and important, it may take some practice before children will note the hard work that goes into raising them and keeping them in juice boxes and Old Navy.

One simple way to get your child to look outside herself is to have her ask you, "Mom, how was your day?" To get it rolling, structure the conversation as an exchange. 'What was the best thing that happened to you today? This is the best thing that happened to me.'"

Getting the topic going is one thing, getting kids to listen is another. Randy Nebel, a gymnastics coach at NYC Elite, a private gym in New York City, has made a career of getting little girls to pay attention to his every command. "Eye contact is your best tool," he says. "Direct, sustained eye contact. Also, give them your undivided attention. You've got to look right at them, react to them. Most kids will mimic your focus."

4: Teach Them the Value of a Dollar

Adults know that Time + Work = Money. Kids, however, think cash flows from ATMs like manna from heaven, and that if you use a credit card, it's like getting something for free. I once tried to illustrate to Lucy, my 5-year-old, how we have to make choices about how we spend the money I earn by telling her that to buy a Groovy Girl, I'd have to work for the equivalent of three episodes of SpongeBob Squarepants. Her response? "Can I get a SpongeBob doll too?"

Kids need to learn at the earliest age that there's no such thing as a free lunch. "It makes a child feel secure in the family to have a function in the form of household chores," says Thompson. A toddler can put away her crayons. A 4-year-old can put her dishes in the sink. Carroll says she put her three-year-old son in charge of recycling. "He doesn't get an allowance. That's the job he does for the privilege of living here," she says.

To teach the value of a dollar, it seems essential that work must be linked to money. But receiving an allowance for performing chores is a controversial subject. Some experts think kids should do the chores as members of the household, and not for money. Others see the good of connecting work and payment. Choose what feels right for your family. But should a 5-year-old want to work toward buying, say, a Groovy Girl by cleaning her room every day, Thompson says, "She's learning that good things take effort." The flip side of that is what Thompson calls "logical consequences." If a child breaks a window, he should be prepared to work toward paying for a replacement. Just be sure to be consistent with whatever approach you choose.

Older kids can also be introduced to the larger picture: the household budget, what things cost. It shocked Maggie, my 8-year-old, when I explained that car expenses included not just fuel, which she'd seen me pay for many times, but insurance, maintenance, parking fees, and tolls. She likewise had no idea that I pay for (hence, work for) heat, water, electricity. Now she does. And since that penetrated her mind, she's been (to my delight) more responsible about saying the magic words, making her bed, and putting her dishes in the sink without having to be asked.

5: Expose Them to Less Fortunates

Even if a child is too young to feel the pain of those who have less than she does (empathy), she can certainly feel sorry for them (sympathy), and better appreciate what she's got (gratitude). This isn't to say you should all pile in the car and take a driving tour of the nearest slum. There are other options. Soup kitchens, literacy programs, food drives, volunteering at an animal shelter. My kids and I walked around Greenwich Village one afternoon giving hot meals to the housebound elderly, and  -- as I told them repeatedly along the way  -- it was a deeply rewarding experience.

And the benefits of this kind of activity go beyond gratitude. "Being charitable can expand a child's perspective and teach thinking and problem-solving," says Thompson.

Thinking and problem-solving are light years away from whining and eye-rolling. And, of course, drastic improvements in gratitude won't happen overnight. "With counting blessings, doing charitable work, helping out at home, one must make it a routine," says Father Paul Lemire, senior priest at St. Joseph's Parish, in Auburn, Massachusetts. "That way, thinking of others becomes a part of one's self. It establishes a mind-set of values and constructs a solid base. Later in life, when difficulties and sadness present themselves, that will be a rock your child can stand on."