The Development of Appreciation

thank youThanksgiving is traditionally a celebration of the harvest, but also a good time for us to reflect on what we are thankful for in general. Teaching children to be grateful can sometimes be more difficult than you think, as young children are developmentally egocentric and are still learning empathy. Gratitude is part of our emotions, and connecting the unspoken feeling to the expression “thank you” is an important step in children’s social-emotional development.  Here are some tips on helping your child to develop a sense of appreciation and to practice expressions of gratitude:

1. Saying “Thank you!”

It’s great to teach children manners. By encouraging children to say “thank you,” they will learn when it is socially expected and appropriate to show gratitude. But asking children to say thank you could sometimes turn into a power struggle. If children are grumbling or maybe feeling a little shy at the moment, forcing the “thank you” won’t help them understand what gratefulness really feels like.  You can gently encourage your child to say thank you, but if she just runs off or feels uneasy to say it at the moment, don’t make a big deal out of it. You can also simply reiterate why she is expected to say thank you by saying, “It’s very thoughtful for Uncle Joe to buy you the toy. I bet he spent a lot of time to choose it for you. Can you say thank you for his kindness?” If the words thank you won’t come out immediately, you can also take time and write a card later, which may work better for children who may require a little extra time to warm up.

2. Modeling appreciative behaviors

Children learn from observation, especially from those who are close to them, like parents. Modeling appropriate behaviors is extremely important when you want to teach children skills and behaviors.  Show respect, gratitude and forgiveness to people around you, including small encounters with store clerks and strangers on the street. Make sure you say thank you and briefly explain why when appropriate. For example, if someone gives up her seat on the bus, make sure to thank her and casually say to your child, “It was very nice of her to think that we may want to sit. It makes me feel happy, and I’m very thankful.” Even if you have an infant, you still want to exercise the attitude of gratitude.  Tending to your baby’s needs by playing, caring, and spending happy time together is a first, yet very crucial step for the development of gratefulness.

3. Gift giving and thinking of others.

Children are generally very excited by gifts they may receive during the holiday season. This is a good opportunity to have children think and practice how to be thankful. Writing thank you cards is a great way to take time and reflect on what they were given. Even for toddlers, they can scribble or put on a stamp that says “thank you,” which will develop into something greater in the future. Also, as children are more often on the “receiver” side of the gift-giving process, it gives them greater perspective of appreciation for when they are involved in the giving side. When choosing gifts for his grandparents, for example, you can ask your child to figure out what his grandparents might like by thinking through what they like to do, eat, wear, etc.; and then deciding what would be best to give them as a gift. Choosing toys for donation is another good way to encourage children to think of others, which in turn helps them understand gratitude when they receive kindness. It may take a lot for a child to pick a toy that won’t be his, but gift giving and donation will benefit his development of empathy, which is the root of the development of appreciation.

Come to Tasty Tuesdays at Boston Children’s Museum with yummy, healthy snacks, and share your stories about good things that have happened lately that made you feel thankful!

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