To mark the Thanksgiving holiday, we asked Chris Ferry, Executive Director of KidsPeace’s Pennsylvania community programs, this question: What can a parent do to encourage their children to be more grateful?
Raising grateful kids begins by teaching them to be gracious towards others – to consider another person’s needs before one’s own.
Now, children are born with many innate abilities, but being gracious is not one of them. And in some ways it’s harder to teach them that now than when I was their age.
The big difference now from 20 or 30 years ago: instant gratification. Think about the technology we have at our fingertips — everything we need and want is just a touch away with no wait time, and increasingly we live in an environment set by social media that magnifies the importance of obtaining and displaying wealth. From designer shoes to the latest smartphone, many children and teens today live in a society that seems to revolve more around “I” not “we” – with a decreasing emphasis on the value of delayed gratification to achieve a long-term better result.
A famous study from the 1970s called the “Stanford Marshmallow Experiment” focused on the effects of delayed gratification. In the study children were offered a choice between getting one reward immediately (a marshmallow or cookie) or TWO rewards if they waited 15 minutes. Follow-up studies found that the children who were able to wait longer (who practiced delayed gratification) tended to have better life outcomes like higher SAT scores, better health, better jobs….
Simply put, delaying gratification is making a choice that enhances your willpower, and helps you reach your bigger goal at a later time. It adds to the value you find in things and life experiences – more than instant gratification does. And it helps you develop the ability to be polite and courteous, and feel grateful for the positive aspects of your life.
So how can we teach children gratitude in a world overrun with instant gratification?
- First, stop giving kids everything they want, when they want it. Have them earn things and understand the importance and value of saying no to instant gratification.
- Secondly, help them understand what it means to be gracious. It’s not about just following etiquette. It’s about considering the needs of others before your own and acting in a way which shows it.
- Third, look at how activities that involve competition – like sports – can teach kids about what it means to strive, to fail, and to succeed, and the connection between achievement and hard work. We as parents need to make it about the experience, not whether or not you won the trophy. Sports and other types of competitive activities are wonderful venues to teach kids life lessons – the most important of which is that they will lose and fail at some point in their lives and that’s OK, as long as you get up, keep going, show graciousness in victory and defeat, and be grateful for the experience.
- Finally and most important, model the behavior you want them to adopt. Nothing helps a child more than demonstrating the behavior. Consider the way you greet a friend or a relative, how you interact with the server at the restaurant, how you react to someone who has offended you. Do you show graciousness and gratitude in your interactions with others? Your ability to respond to life’s circumstances with grace, especially when it’s hard, is a powerful lesson for your child.
Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!