7 Ways to Teach Your Kids to Be Grateful

We have all seen ungrateful kids: The child who turns their nose up on a meal served to them.  The child who does not say thank-you after opening their Christmas presents.  The child who throws a tantrum because their parent does not buy a certain toy at the store. It’s disgusting to witness.   By the way, did I mention these acts were all done by my children at some point in their lives?

Thanksgiving is a time to reflect with gratitude on the blessings in our lives.  During this time of the year and on a daily basis when scenarios like the ones above occur….I often question my ability as a parent to teach my children, Kara and Tristan, to be grateful for what they have.  Their privileged life is very different from my own up poverty-sticken upbringing.  While my Mexican-immigrant parents were just trying to survive, put food on the table, and keep a roof over our head, my own challenges as a parent are very different but equally anxiety-provoking (well, not really, but almost).  My parents did not have to consciously try to teach my sisters and I to be grateful and independent, as we learned to be this way by sheer virtue of growing up the way we did.

My job as a parent is to make sure my kids are grateful for what they have, which is difficult when life is relatively easy.  My children have not known hardship.  Ever.  This is because I worked hard to get an education to be able to give them the life they lead.  One of the reasons we moved to Costa Rica was precisely to teach our kids to live with less and to be grateful.  I know moving to a developing Latin American country is not an option for every family, so there are 7 ways to cultivate gratitude in your children.

Model grateful behaviors. 

“Tell me, I’ll forget
Show me, I’ll remember 
Involve me, I’ll understand”   — Chinese Proverb

I can sit my children in front of me and tell them all the reasons they need to be grateful and it will not make any impact whatsoever.  But if I demonstrate and model gratitude, they may actually pick it up.  Say “please” and “thank you” to everyone who crosses your path, especially to people in the service industry.  Praise your children when they remember to say “please” and “thank you” without being prompted.  Also, remember to treat others with gratitude and respect, especially in front of your children.  When something doesn’t go your way (like your flight is delayed or your meal was not exactly what you ordered), do not throw a tantrum or bully the person in front of you.  I am not saying to passively let these things go unattended.  You should address the issue to rectify the situation, but do it in a mature, calm, and respectful manner.  Otherwise, you are teaching your children that you are entitled and that when things don’t go your way you should throw a tantrum until they do.  You also teach them it is OK to disrespect others.  These are not lessons you want to convey.  You want to teach them to say “please” and “thank you” and to be grateful when someone is trying to help them.

Serve others as a family.

For her eleventh birthday, Kara asked her guests to bring canned food to donate to the San Antonio Food Bank instead of presents.  Kara and Tristan also volunteered at the San Antonio Food Bank with Chris in conjunction with the company for which he works.   As alluded in the Chinese proverb above, if you involve the child in behavior that expresses gratitude, they are more likely to understand why it is important.  Volunteer as a family to help those in need.  Participate in fundraisers for families in crisis.  Adopt a family charity.  You also don’t have to leave your home to serve others. When Don Enrique, the man who mows our lawn (with a weed sacker!) comes to work on our rental property, I have Tristan serve him a cup of coffee and a piece of homemade bread.  The first time we did this, Tristan asked me why he had to do it.  I said, “To show him that we are grateful for mowing our lawn.  It is hard work!”  I could see the light bright up in his eyes when he understood the reasons for serving this gentleman.  Sure enough, Tristan now serves Don Enrique his coffee and bread with no question or complaint.

It’s OK to say, “We cannot afford that.”

Many parents will tell you that they more they give their children the less grateful they seem.  This is because kids who are given everything learn to be entitled.  The believe they deserve everything they want, whether they earned it or not.  From the time our kids were very young, Chris and I have had no problem telling our children that something they asked for was too expensive or out of our price range.  I think children need to hear the words, “We cannot afford that”.  First, the phrase shows them that all things come with a price tag.  It also tells them that some price tags are out of reach from the family budget.  This will allow them to be grateful for the things that they are able to buy because they will understand that they are not entitled to everything they want.  They will also begin to understand that age old saying, “Money does not grow on trees.”

Include your children in household chores.

Kara is responsible for putting away her laundry, keeping her room clean, and making sure Tristan gets ready in the morning.  Tristan is responsible for keeping his room clean and putting his laundry in the basket.  Both children are responsible for setting and clearing the table at meal times.  When children are involved in household chores, they learn to appreciate the effort it takes to get something done.  They learn to feel pride in their own work and their role in helping the family.  They learn gratitude for the work others do for them.

Make your children work for something they really want.

A few years ago, Kara asked for an American Girl Doll.  These dolls are expensive, and by the time you get the doll and all the accessories, you can easily spend close to $200 USD.  I gave Kara two options: We could go to Target to buy the AGD knock-off called “Our Generation” doll, which cost about $20 USD each, or she could save up for the real AGD herself.  She chose to save up for the “real deal”.  For six months, 9-year old Kara saved her allowance and worked extra chores around the house to earn enough money for Josefina, the historic American Girl Doll of her choice.  She was so excited when Josefina finally came in the mail, along with Sombrita, her goat, and other cute accessories.  When we moved to Costa Rica, Josefina was one of the few toys that made the trip with us.  When children work for something they want, it teaches them to appreciate the toy or object a lot more.  They learn that the value of money and hard work.  They understand that they are not entitled to something just because they want it, which fosters a sense of gratitude.

Kara and Josefina

Kara and Josefina

Let them suffer a little bit.

A few weeks ago, Kara came home from school with a bone to pick with me.  She told me, “I know you brought me to a developing country to live a simpler life.  But I just want you to know, that I am the only kid in sixth grade that does not take a phone with music and headphones to school.”

To which I responded, “Kara, the reason you do not take an iPod with headphones to school is not because we cannot afford one.  It is because we do not want you to have one.”

She could not argue with that one.  I also proceeded to point out all the things she had in her life that the kids at school did not, such as the opportunity to travel all over the world.  Most people in Costa Rica have never been outside of Costa Rica.  This fact has come to her attention most recently, and she has shown more humility and gratitude about our ability to travel.

Many parents helicopter around their kids and do not want them to feel discomfort or pain, whether it’s physical, emotional, social, or intellectual.  I am not saying you should torture your kids or put them in harm’s way.  I am saying that as parents we need to stop coddling our kids so that they never learn what it is like to feel a little discomfort.  It is OK to deny your kids something they want simply so they learn what it’s like to go without something they want.  That way they will learn to appreciate what they do have.

Ironically, the privilege of travel has thrown our kids into situations where they were uncomfortable, such as sleeping on airport floors.  These experiences have made them appreciate the comforts of home, such as a soft, warm bed.

Tristan and Kara asleep at the airport in Brasilia.

Tristan and Kara asleep at the airport in Brasilia.

Why is it that my kids look their cutest when they are asleep?

Why is it that my kids look their cutest when they are asleep?

Tell stories 

I often tell Kara and Tristan my stories of growing up poor in South Texas.  They sometimes ask very specific questions about exactly how much money we had or how many toys I got.  I make it very clear that growing up poor did not make me sad, and that I am very grateful for all my parents did for us.  I am grateful for my upbringing because it made me the person I am today.  And I am grateful that I can share those stories with them so they can get a window into a life so different than their own.  Hopefully this will help them appreciate the material blessings in their lives.

We also read books and stories about children who were poor, but were happy and grateful.  Some of these include “Esperanza Rising”, “James and the Giant Peach”, “Where the Red Fern Grows”, “The Great Gilly Hopkins”, and “The Boxcar Children” series.

I know I cannot recreate the hardships of my childhood that taught me to be grateful and independent.  Honestly, I would not want to!  My challenge is teaching my children gratitude while providing them with a privileged life.  These 7 strategies have helped us quite a bit.  We are by no means perfect.  We all forget to say “thank-you” sometimes.  We are all working on this as a family, because expressing gratitude is an action worth doing.

How are you teaching your children to be grateful?  Let me know in the comments below.

Pura Vida!

About Noemi Gamel

Noemi Gamel is a physician who prefers writing diverse children's fantasy stories instead of medical charts. She is a geeky nomad, too.
This entry was posted in An Action Worth Doing, Parenting and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to 7 Ways to Teach Your Kids to Be Grateful

  1. Pingback: 3 Lessons Learned From Being Grateful | Pura Vida Familia

  2. nixmith says:

    I like your point about the more kids have, the less grateful they are. Every evening at supper, we say gratefulness. We take turns around the table saying what we are grateful for (lately doing it in Spanish “Estoy agradecido por…”). We aren’t religious, so we don’t say grace, but this is a useful ritual.

  3. Pingback: 4 Good Reasons to Move to Costa Rica | Pura Vida Familia

  4. Pingback: Merry Christmas From Costa Rica! | Pura Vida Familia

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