Why Teaching Kids Gratitude and Thankfulness Is Hard as Hell

Gratitude is a powerful tool for kids and families looking to build bonds. But it’s hard to teach unless it’s a value deeply ingrained into the everyday life of parents.

American popular culture doesn’t necessarily encourage gratitude. For proof, just look to the holiday season. Mere hours after a feast celebrating thankfulness we are encouraged to go on a shopping spree. And with toy ads and lists, kids can certainly get the idea that the world (their parents and relatives and friends) owes them.

Gratitude is a powerful antidote to the selfish messaging of popular culture. It’s powerful because it’s viral and uplifting. Thankfulness is a prosocial emotion that can cement bonds in a community. But teaching a kid to feel thankful can feel like swimming against the stream. And the harsh truth about teaching those lessons is that, unless gratitude has a strong foundation in the parent, it likely won’t flourish in a kid. Parents who give have thankful kids.

Kids Don’t Become Ungrateful by Being Spoiled

The concept of spoiling persists among adults who feel ingratitude and selfishness are a product of participation trophies and permissive parenting. The problem is that these adults also feel that parenting with austere attitudes towards affection, praise, and material goods will automatically build gratitude. That’s simply not true.

The term “spoiled child” is essentially short-form for a kind of kid who engages in selfish, bratty, and entitled behavior. But the reason children act in a “spoiled” manner has nothing to do with how many toys or hugs they’ve received from their parents. In fact, children who receive unconditional love and support from parents are often better behaved. They are less stressed and less likely to lash out.

Kids who are ungrateful get that way when parents reinforce the societal norm of selfishness. Spoiled, ungrateful parents, essentially, raise spoiled, ungrateful kids. Luckily, parents also have the power to change that selfishness and ingratitude by changing themselves.

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For Kids to Be Grateful, Parents Must Model Gratitude

Interestingly, some of the most privileged kids can turn out to be the most thankful, grateful, and gracious. And those attitudes are largely a product of how parents have shown them to live in the world.

It’s important to note that telling a kid to be thankful doesn’t actually do anything. Kids learn by example. Parents who live in a way that shows gratitude for what they have will foster gratitude in their child. A parent who doesn’t walk through the world with a feeling of entitlement will likely raise a gracious kid. A parent who acknowledges the generosity of others will raise kids who are thankful.

Is that a tough pill for many parents to swallow? Yep.

Parents Should Say Thank You to Their Children

Some parents feel that just because kids are kids, they don’t deserve thanks. That’s because many parents have an idea that children should simply do as parents say without question. But demanding unflinching obedience is not how you raise a grateful child, it’s how you raise a kid that will defer to anyone who they perceive to have the most power.

Saying thank you to a child can be really powerful. For one, if it’s said with sincerity and excitement, a child understands they’ve done something good, which reinforces their behavior. A “thanks” also helps kids build a foundation of empathy by learning to recognize gratitude in others. Finally, thank you implies they had a choice, and kids love choice.

Saying thank you may feel weird to some parents, but it’s important. It might help to consider that a child doesn’t have to put in the effort to do as a parent asks. And in fact, they often don’t. So saying thank you for the effort a child put in, against their selfish instincts, is totally appropriate.

Children Develop Gratitude in Charitable Families

One of the ways children develop a sense of gratitude is fostering it in others. Children who grow up in a family that practices charity and spends time helping in their community will begin to recognize what gratitude looks like.

This is a simple calculation. Learning is experiential. It’s not that children learn gratitude by giving things away, it’s that they begin to recognize gratitude in the faces, attitudes, words, and behavior of others. And, in seeing gratitude, they are able to build emotional intelligence and empathy and better show gratitude themselves.

Cultural Traditions Help Kids Build Gratitude

During holidays, when gratitude and thankfulness are expected, there’s little to be gained by telling a child to be grateful without context. It’s much easier, however, when there are cultural and religious traditions that pin gratitude to a larger message.

Children often view holidays as times of receiving. After all, that’s largely the message they hear from popular culture. But when parents are able to give a child the “real” meaning of a holiday — celebrating togetherness, peace, charity, forgiveness — there is far less emphasis on receiving. If a kid understands the important part of Thanksgiving is to be with family, they will likely be less likely to look for gifts when grandma rolls in, knowing the best gift is grandma being there at all.

Gratitude Is Great, but Kids Should Be Allowed to Feel Disappointed

It’s important for adults to remember that kids are kids. They do not have the full intellectual capacities that adults do. The part of their brain that helps them regulate emotion, in particular, isn’t well developed. So, they’ll get sad when they want a gift that doesn’t arrive.

There’s nothing wrong with disappointment. It’s natural. Kids should be able to express disappointment and have that disappointment acknowledged. A disappointed kid isn’t an ungrateful kid. They’re a human kid.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Kids Faking Thankfulness

It might take a while before kids develop a strong sense of gratitude. In fact, there are many many adults in the world who still haven’t grasped the concept. But that doesn’t mean they’re off the hook for showing their thanks. They can fake it. In fact, in many instances, they need to.

Parents will be doing their kids a solid by coaching them how to show gratitude even if they don’t feel it. They may open an awful gift from grandma, but they should still understand why and how they need to say thank you to grandma. And, as we know, when they see the happiness from grandma, the act of being thankful is being reinforced. So ultimately, faking the gratitude could easily turn into actual gratitude.