Here in Canada, we have just celebrated Thanksgiving. What a great time to discuss teaching our kids about gratitude.
A common complaint I hear from parents is “My kids act so entitled. They don’t appreciate what they have. They’re demanding. I can’t take them anywhere without endless requests for a new toy or food or something.”
Consider where you child is in their development, because there are certain concepts that are just beyond the grasp of children at certain stages of development.
In this case, we need to look at where their perspective-taking and empathy development is.
Children under age 3 are still learning that they and their parents are not one being and that you don’t share thoughts.
To be fair, that’s a pretty easy concept to be confused about when your parents always know what’s going on, they pretty universally understand you and your requests, they anticipate your needs, etc.
As far as a 2-year-old is concerned, their parents are as close to omniscient as it gets.
Between 2.5 and 3, they begin to realize that oh crap, we don’t think the same thoughts. They cannot read my mind.
Yeah, they’re good at anticipating what I need and they understand me, but they don’t actually know what I’m thinking. This is usually when separation anxiety hits because the realization that omg if we’re not the same person.
Then when they aren’t with me “they’re out there doing things without me” hits.
By 3 they have pretty much figured out that they and others have different thoughts and perspectives but they’re still VERY egocentric, meaning they’re self-centred.
They don’t really care what your perspective is- they’re just aware that you have a separate perspective.
The egocentric perspective stage lasts till somewhere between 5 and 6 years old.
Children are not robots they don’t level up.
It’s in that year somewhere that we see that the subjective stage of perspective-taking develops where children can understand that others have different thoughts about an event or subject because they have different information- and that stage lasts till around age 9.
I’m sure you can see the barrier that the egocentric stage of perspective development creates to gratitude.
It’s hard to feel gratitude for something when you have:
A) never actually been without it and
B) you believe that your thoughts and perspective is the most important one in the world, that you are the centre of the universe.
Of COURSE THEY’RE ENTITLED!
They literally think that your perspective is inferior to theirs and that on the whole, you share the same perspective as they do.
This isn’t to say that kids between 2 and 6 aren’t capable of empathy and understanding other’s perspectives but it doesn’t come naturally to them. They have to experience you putting yourself in their shoes in other words displaying empathy towards them for quite a while before they can learn to do it for others. Even once they learn to do it, they won’t always be able to do it, and it won’t be their default.
Another issue is that young children don’t understand adult concerns.
They have no concept of money, budgets, time crunches, other’s emotions, social expectations and conventions. All this stuff that informs how we conduct ourselves on a daily basis.
Heck, even teenagers aren’t fully at the stage where they can fully grasp these concepts because they’ve only ever experienced them second hand!
I can clearly remember being sop frustrated with my parents because all my friends either had a car for their own personal use, their parents drove them to school, or they lived close enough to walk.
For context my highschool was almost a 20 minute drive away in optimal conditions.
I was like why are my parents so selfish? They’d rather I sit on a school bus for two hours than take 20 minutes to drive me into school!
But NOW I understand that my parents had their own life and things to do, cars aren’t cheap and require a lot of maintenance, and while my friends had access to cars, I didn’t have to pay for university.
If a 16-year-old still can’t fully understand that their parents don’t have unlimited financial resources, time to dedicate to their priorities, why certain things are considered rude or acceptable.
What makes you think a 2-6 year old who is still extremely egocentric can?
Real gratitude where children feel genuine appreciation of the things they have and are given is a bit of a stretch for this age group.
This doesn’t mean we can’t start teaching it though and laying the foundations of gratitude.
First: Introduce the concepts.
We can do this is by introducing the concepts we’re relying on like how money works and how others’ boundaries work and how their words make others feel…in a very rote manner.
For instance, every day while you’re at daycare, Mommy and/or Daddy and/or Grandma and/or Grandpa or whatever your personal situation is go to work.
At work we help a business with a job they need done, and in exchange they give us money.
Mommy and Daddy use this money to pay for our house, our food, our clothes, your toys, etc.
If we want more money, we have to work more or we have to not pay for something else. If we buy you a toy, that might mean that Mommy can’t afford to buy a new pair of shoes she needs.
You don’t have to get super detailed about this, in fact keeping it simple is best.
I often write these things into a simple story so we can review it frequently but by introducing it as more objective information, you’re giving them the details they need to understand why you’re saying no to a toy every time you step in WalMart.
Or why we can’t go to McDonalds whenever they demand it.
Or why it might hurt someone’s feelings when they receive a gift and they say “it’s ugly.”
These concepts don’t just pop into their heads, they need to be taught intentionally if we want them to learn them before they have first-hand experience with them.
Second: Intentionally spend time reflecting on how others are feeling and their prespective
I often would watch Paw Patrol or Octonaughts with my boys and pause the show randomly and say “Hey, how do you think Tweak is feeling right now?” and then “how do you know she’s feeling that way?” and see what cues they were picking up on.
Then I’d share my perspective on it. So when they were little they’d often say “happy!” when the character was visibly sad and I’d be like oh…why do you think that?
Often they’d be like “I dunno!” and then I could say “okay, well I think Tweak is sad right now. Her eyes are looking down and she has a tear on her cheek.
People don’t usually look at the floor and cry when they’re happy.” And the more we did it, the better they got at attuning to those cues and understanding what the character might be feeling, which was then easily generalized to real-world scenarios.
You can also do this with picture books.
Third: First hand Experience
Cchildren need the first-hand experience in order to understand these concepts.
This means that you have to model gratitude and empathy.
When they give you a dandelion, be display gratitude.
When you receive a gift, model graciously accepting it. When they’re upset, model empathizing with them. Show them how to take the concept of looking for cues from a character on TV or in a book- and applying it to them.
“Your face is all scrunched up and your hands are in tight fists. You look angry. I wonder what upset you?”
Don’t be obnoxious about it- but start intentionally modelling the behaviour you want them to emulate.
They reference our behaviour as the roadmap for how to behave in these situations.
Please stop forcing children to say please and thank you!!! Model it!
If you say please and thank you, they will too.
If someone gives them something and they don’t immediately display gratitude model it for them.
“Thank you so much, what a lovely gift.” Don’t force them to.
For one, they’re just empty words unless they’re spontaneous and two when we force children to do things they don’t yet understand they develop resistance to it because it feels overwhelming and confusing.
On Thanksgiving this year, whether you’re celebrating this weekend or in November, I encourage you to focus on giving your children the information they need to understand abstract concepts of gratitude and model your own gratitude.
We all have so much to be thankful for and the more we walk the walk, the faster they’ll follow.
As always if you have questions or want to follow this up come join us in the Parenting Posse and let’s talk about it.