Raising Grateful Children

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Artwork by Rivka Krinsky, www.rivkakrinsky.com and @rivkapaints on Instagram

Chanukah is right around the corner. It comes along with lots of presents, latkes, chocolate gelt and sufganiyot. It also comes along with some misbehavior which looks like entitlement, ungratefulness and (ugh!) even some greediness.

It can be painful to watch this behavior in our children. We start to ask ourselves, “Why aren’t my kids happy with what they have?” and “Why this incessant need for more?” and “Why are they so ungrateful?” Finally, we ask ourselves, “How can I teach my child to be a grateful person?”

It’s most important that we appreciate the people we live with. In this way, children can see gratefulness in action every day.

This final question is important. We need to teach our children to be grateful. After learning about gratefulness, I now view the act of accessing gratefulness or practicing gratefulness as having a super power. The benefits are that good.

Gratefulness helps people feel more positive emotions and relish good experiences. Gratefulness energizes us, and it improves health and sleep patterns. When we are grateful for the people in our lives (at home and at work), we build strong relationships. Gratefulness combats depression, improves mental stamina, and helps us deal with adversity.

So, how can we teach our children to have this superpower of gratefulness?

Here is what you need to know in order to teach your children to be grateful:

Understand the reasons for the behavior.

It is always important to understand why our children act the way they do. What we view as “misbehavior” is usually actually normal behavior. The ungratefulness which we see at Chanukah (and other times, as well!) is typical.

Children and teens are being bombarded with advertisements which tell them to want and buy more. It’s hard for us, as adults, to withstand these messages. And it is nearly impossible for kids, who have not fully developed self-control, and have a hard time curbing their impulses. This is the true reason behind their behavior. When we have this knowledge, we now have the information we need to move on to the next step:

Learn to say “no” firmly and kindly.

Part of our job as parents is to help children learn to delay gratification and have self-control. Again, in modern times, when every billboard tells us what we are missing, it is extra difficult, but we cannot abandon our posts!

Instead of getting upset when our children start with their complaints and requests, we need to view them with compassion. It is very hard to want things that you can’t have.

However, we do not need to give in to their urgent pleas. We are the ones responsible for helping them channel their desires into normal proportions. We can and should say no. The key here is that if they hear that you actually care about how they feel, they will be able to accept your “no” a bit more gracefully.

When your child says, “Why can’t I have those sneakers? All my friends have them! Why do I always have to be the odd man out?!”, instead of responding, “You are so ungrateful! You just got new sneakers! You shouldn’t buy things just because your friends have them!”, try this: “You sound upset. You really like those sneakers. Many of your friends have them. That can hurt. That’s not in our budget right now.”

Say thank you at home.

The most significant way for children to learn is by role modeling. Indirect teaching is pretty powerful. Children do as we do, not as we say.

It’s most important that we appreciate the people we live with. In this way, children can see gratefulness in action every day. My husband always thanks me for dinner, and because of this, my children have followed suit. I try to thank my husband for the little things he does, like taking out the garbage and doing the dishes. We can also thank our kids for the things that they are supposed to do:

“Thanks for setting the table. It helped the evening run smoothly.”

For little kids, when saying Modeh Ani in the morning, it can be helpful for everyone to share something for which they are thankful.

Create an environment in your home where kids see a living example of gratefulness. It will go a long way in teaching your kids to appreciate what they have.

Practice gratefulness out loud.

It is obviously just as important for kids to see us acting grateful outside our homes. We can say thank you to the postman, the store clerk, and the garbage man. When I am in Israel, although it often feels awkward, I say thank you to the chayalim and chayalot (soldiers) for their service to our country.

We should also make sure to appreciate the natural world which Hashem has given us. We want to move away from focusing on superficial things, and share the wonders of the natural world with our children. Pointing out a beautiful sunset, the changing of the leaves in the fall, the sun shining on the snow, and the blossoming trees can foster an appreciation of the beauty around us.

Is it me…or them?

This might be hard to hear, but when we see ungrateful behavior, we should first look to ourselves. Are we acting in grateful ways?

There are some painful questions we might need to ask ourselves. (I often don’t like my own answers to these questions!) “Are we running out to buy the newest gadget and fashion accessory?” “Do we constantly complain about what we don’t have?” “Are we trying to keep up with the Schwartzes?”

What about your teen?

This came as a bit of a surprise to me, but it can be even harder for a teen to be grateful. Teens are also still learning to curb their impulses and delay gratification. Furthermore, they are in the process of individuation—separating from their parents.

Studies have shown that keeping a gratitude journal helps most adults—and even college students—feel happier and more grateful. But when those same studies were repeated on teens, there was no significant increase in their happiness or their ability to be happy for what they have.

Experts suggest the reason behind this: Being grateful for what one has means that you are beholden to the people who give you so much. In a teen’s case, those people are his parents. Teens are trying to find themselves, and this often results in pushing their parents away. Their very real need for independence means that they would rather feel self-reliant than grateful to the adults in their life.

Parents should not worry, though. Teens are still watching you and learning from your role modeling and your grateful behavior. They might not be grateful now, but they should start showing it as they leave the teen years behind.

Teaching our children gratefulness can take a while; it’s a process. Understanding their needs, saying no kindly but firmly, and practicing and modeling kindness ourselves are all powerful ways to get the process started.

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