We humans are negatively biased, did you know that? We see the world as ‘glass half empty.’ So, to switch that around takes practice. And, we can assume that a head start early in life can help us see the world more positively. So, while Thanksgiving may have come and gone in your country, or is yet to arrive, we thought we’d share on a topic that’s important regardless of a holiday to remind us of it: gratitude. How do we teach preschoolers to be grateful? It goes beyond saying thank you. It means being truly glad for what they have, and carrying that principle on in their real life mentality.
Parents and caregivers should model gratefulness first
Reading articles about how to teach kids gratitude can reveal some patterns in what others have learned on the subject. Firstly, it all comes down to routine and reinforcement. We’ll get to that. Secondly, parents and, by extension, caregivers (like preschool teachers), are the ones who have to ‘go first.’
Surely, kids mimic the adults in their life. If they constantly hear a ‘thank you’ from their parents when they receive something they don’t necessarily deserve (or even if they do), they’ll learn that it’s a normal response to those social situations.
But here is where it gets interesting: parents need to show thankfulness to their kids, too.
So, while yes, kids technically have to listen to their parents, that ideal is not meant to be imposed in a dictatorship setting. Being firm doesn’t require being heartless. Parents should still give hugs, show appreciation for their kids, say ‘I love you’ and, on the topic of gratitude, offer a ‘thank you’ when kids do their chores (even the ones they were told to do).
This instils the idea of gratefulness in kids. They see that it’s normal to humble ourselves to the level of being thankful for people and their acts of kindness, duty and responsibility towards us.
To teach preschoolers to be grateful, adults need to reinforce, reinforce, reinforce
As we mentioned above, becoming a grateful preschooler – or even a grateful human at any age – requires regular routine. And, it requires teachable moments. You know, those times of the day, those unexpected moments, when there is an opportunity to be thankful, and to show it.
A scientific explanation on this was published by Greater Good Magazine at UC Berkeley. It is titled, “What Parents Neglect to Teach about Gratitude.” In short, the article breaks down the components of being grateful, and why all its interrelated parts are important to teach – not just the ‘politeness’ aspect of it.
For instance, do kids realize that they don’t necessarily deserve a toy at Christmas? Or that they’re not actually entitled to that cupcake a friend at school gave them? Or that screen time is a privilege?
So why did they get those things? What was the giver thinking when they gave them those things?
Parents and early childhood educators need to have these conversations with kids. Like really: they need to sit down with kids when they get something and ask them these types of questions, in an age-appropriate way. Get those brain motors moving! Get kids thinking more deeply about what they have, so they can be thankful and glad for it.
Another way to get kids thinking about thankfulness is by practicing it. At dinner time, every day, each person can say grace by mentioning what they’re thankful for. And at night, kids can keep a gratitude journal. If they can’t write yet, they can do a photo journal, a drawing journal, or get mom and dad to help!
See related on our blog: 4 preschool journaling experiences to try in early childhood
Then, by modelling even the routine ‘thank yous’ (such as when a fellow shopper at the grocery store holds a door open for you and your child), more reinforcement can take place.
Let kids experience ‘real life’ once in a while, to be thankful for what they have
The third major pattern that almost any article on gratefulness in children will talk about, is letting kids ‘feel’ hard things. This is not about needless suffering. No, no, no. This is about real life, but ‘watered down’ to be age-appropriate for a child. For example: letting kids wait. Or letting them be disappointed. Or letting them work for what they want.
As parents, we just light up when our kid gets a toy they’ve been longing for. But shortly after, it’s common for kids to get bored of that toy they couldn’t stop talking about, and to want the next thing. Actually, this is human nature. The popular Nas Daily Facebook Page has a video on this, called, “The Numbers Trap.” As the video says, “numbers never end.” When we attach happiness on the number of things we have, we will always want more.
So, giving kids handouts doesn’t work, if teaching preschoolers gratefulness is your goal. But here is a kicker: gratefulness is what makes people happy! By 25 per cent, to be exact. So, put those two ideas together and you get this one: it’s ok to let kids not have everything they want, so they can learn to be truly happy.
To start on this path, here are some steps you can take:
Give children age-appropriate chores and responsibilities.
This also gives the life lesson that chores and responsibility take work. So if they learn what work feels like, they’ll learn that it’s something special when someone does ‘free work’ for them (like making them dinner, or washing their laundry!)
Learn to say no to kids
It’s hard for some parents to put their foot down. If you’re one of those parents, keep this in mind: it’s good for kids in the long run. We’re not saying you should say no to everything. But we are saying that when kids are pushing too far, you shouldn’t be guilt-tripped into letting them have their way – especially when it costs you money.
While PragerU can be considered a controversial political YouTube Channel (which we’re not trying to get into here), they do have a relevant video by a family psychologist on what he calls, “a deficiency of vitamin N” (the “n” meaning, saying “no” to kids, appropriately).
Let kids work for what they want
They should have everything they need, as children. That’s our job as caregivers in their life. But, they can work for at least some of what they want.
The PragerU video above mentions a principle of only giving kids 25% of what they want, but 100% of what they need, as an example ratio.
Allow kids to face age-appropriate consequences
Sometimes, kids need to learn that actions have consequences. While these situations can be case-specific, and we don’t want to direct your parenting too much, we can say that it’s ok for kids to get that ‘disappointed’ feeling when they failed to clean their room, and as a result, they don’t dessert that day. It’s also ok to walk them over to the neighbour’s house to apologize for playing Nicky Nicky Nine Doors on them (it’s super embarrassing to face them, but it’ll teach a lesson!).
By teaching kids about natural consequences, they can learn that they are responsible for making themselves happy by their own behaviour and good decisions.
On this note: please remember that there is a difference between discipline and punishment. We’ve formerly defined these as teaching a valuable, long-term lesson, versus having an angry, damaging, over-reaction with an associated power-trip. We don’t advise the latter, of course.
See related on our blog:
- The importance of teaching kids decision-making skills in early childhood
- What is a balanced parenting style for toddlers and preschool-aged children? Here are 3 answers.
To conclude: teaching preschoolers to be grateful is not a once-a-year event!
As you can see from what we’ve described above, teaching preschoolers to be thankful is not just for Thanksgiving or religious holidays. It also shouldn’t happen only at times of being deprived (such as if your family is experiencing financial troubles). Gratefulness happens all the time, and it has to be practiced. It doesn’t come naturally – especially not to egocentric kids (have you noticed, they’re born that way?! ha!).
There is no need to make kids feel needlessly guilty for what they have. But there is a need for adults in their life to be good receivers. Both accepting of what one offers in a social situation, and full of humble gratitude – even when that offering wasn’t necessarily needed, or was certainly expected.
See related on our blog:
- The importance of eye contact in young children, and how to teach it as a social skill
- What is social competence in the early years?
- 3 ways to build self-awareness in early childhood
- 3 ways to build confidence in young children
- 3 Key tips to understand and solve temper tantrums in toddlers and young children
- 3 ways early childhood educators can help kids get along and feel included
- 5 significant ways to show children they are loved, and why it’s important