Getting from “Say thank you” to genuine gratitude?

Getting from “Say thank you” to genuine gratitude?

Thanksgiving’s coming and we wonder how to teach our daughter to be genuinely thankful and appreciative, not just say what she knows we want to hear. We often debate with ourselves whether the typical, “What’s the magic word?” really teaches anything more than parroting.

         T. D. in Tiburon

Thanks for the opportunity to reflect on two interrelated issues here:
1. Teaching children proper manners
2. Inculcating genuine gratitude.

Let’s address them in this order. I am not a fan of the common, overly cutesy, prompt: “What’s the magic word?” But I do support what stands behind it: the idea that you have to teach children manners and respect. I don’t think that politeness is something that flows naturally out of children’s hearts and mouths. Of course, the primary mode for teaching manners is modeling. But explicit instructions are valuable as well.

Rather than “What’s the magic word,” simply say: “How do you ask politely?” or “How did Daddy teach you to ask for things?” Be sure to model “Please,” “Thank you,” “You are welcome,” etc., in your own behavior. That’s what will ultimately make these words stick.

Now to a related and often more perplexing issue: what about making your child say “I am sorry” when he has done something unacceptable, especially hurting another child? Here, some child development experts (and parents) argue that a child should only say she is sorry when she is, indeed, sorry. But genuine remorse- in the early years- happens only a fraction of the time. Empathy, remorse and principles of ethical behavior are slow-growth propositions. Apologizing when you don’t mean it, goes this view, is worthless emotionally and does not promote the development of true empathy.

Well, I am on the other side here. I do believe that saying you are sorry is an essential part of polite, “civilized” behavior: “Derekh eretz,” to quote the Talmud, “We’re living in a society here,” to quote Seinfeld. It takes young children a long time to develop genuine empathy and remorse. They need to learn earlier on that we do not approve of the behavior in question and that we expect an apology.

Where I would draw the line is in pressing a child to “Say it like you mean it.” That really won’t work and won’t make sense to him either. General, it’s a good idea to ask/demand your child to do only things you can enforce, thus “Stay quietly in your bed,” rather than “Go to sleep, already!” Instead, once a child has “performed” the apology I would encourage, but not require, a concrete act of empathy. For example, if a child has bitten another (very common!) after having him say he is sorry, send him to bring an ice pack for the child she has just bitten. If a child has snatched a toy from another and pushed him in the process, after her “sorry,” have her bring the other child a stuffed animal to hug.

Now to genuine gratitude. Let’s be honest - this is an area where most of us can aspire to advance and improve. It’s so much easier to kvetch! And it’s also so much easier to be angry, envious, entitled and resentful. With a young child, it’s important to go light, specific and slow in inculcating gratitude. The key is to be concrete. So, you might say: “I am so thankful for this card from my friend because it cheers me up,” or “I appreciate that you helped me clean up because we finished faster and now we can read a story.” It’s the cause and effect between action and the impact on you (or others), that makes us grateful.

Showing appreciation for ordinary things your child does is where you start. But don’t overdo it! Don’t thank her every time she lifts her finger to do the tiniest thing to be helpful or cooperative. Gradually raise the bar for what you consider kindness, and cooperation.

At the Thanksgiving table, many families ask each person to name one thing for which they are thankful. Unless your child loves the spotlight, it’s best to prepare so she can offer something meaningful.


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Rachel Biale - Parenting Counseling