Children are born entitled. They are surrounded by adults who cater to their every need.
That’s fine when those things really are necessities: food, clothing, diapers and a place to get some sleep. Children grow up, though, and as they age, many come to define “needs” as an iPhone or a pair of expensive shoes. So how can parents teach their American Girl-crazed daughter to be more grateful and truly appreciate things?
Christine Carter, author of the blog Raising Happiness and the book of the same name (Ballantine Books, $24), says gratitude is an art and it must be taught. That takes time and commitment.
But some say families are so busy that teaching children gratitude gets lost in the daily crunch of commitments to school, work and activities.
“One thing that hinders people is that we have so many distractions these days, and just the busyness of life,” said Jeffrey Froh, an associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University in New York. “You have to slow down and be more mindful and appreciate what is around you.”
Still, it almost sounds too easy. How could finding time to write little notes to yourself or walking in the woods reform a child with a hard-core case of the gimmes?
Froh and Carter both say it can be that simple, but you have to work at making it a habit. Like any other skill, it takes a lot of practice.
“It comes down to making this a priority,” said Froh, who has done extensive research on children and gratitude. “If we want our kids to do well in school, or soccer, we would make sure we practice with them, and study, because those things are valued and important. If we actually valued becoming grateful, it would happen.”
Here are some ways that parents can help their children this holiday season and throughout the year to feel more gratitude and less entitlement.
• Take a fresh approach to the gratitude journal
A gratitude journal -- a daily written account of what you appreciate in life -- is great, but not everyone wants to sit down every day to pen an ode to their blessings.
Carter suggests turning what interests your child into a gratitude project. Keep a jar of Legos, and every time your child expresses gratitude for something, have her add a Lego to a project and enjoy watching it grow.
During the holidays, drape ribbon from doorways and keep a basket with note paper and clothespins nearby. When people visit, have them write something they’re grateful for on a sheet of paper and pin it to the “garland.” Or have your child make pictures or notes about things he is grateful for, and display them on the refrigerator.
• Give them a service project
Having your child volunteer at a shelter or food pantry or other charitable organization is a good way to expose him to the idea of scarcity without actually depriving him, Carter said.
Sharon Vermont, a pediatrician and mother of two girls in St. Louis, embarked on a gratitude project two years ago after one of her daughters threw a tantrum in an ice cream store.
She told her girls that they would not eat in any restaurants or eat take-out food until they had given a bag of nonperishable food to 30 strangers and heard their life stories. The project took several months, she said, and the girls spoke with firefighters, a single parent with no health insurance whose child had been diagnosed with cancer, and survivors of the war in Bosnia, among others.
“It’s so easy to tell your kids there are starving kids in China, but they don’t know what that means,” Vermont said. “We actually met people who had been starving, from Bosnia and Ethiopia, who explained what it’s like to be starving. (My daughters) definitely ask for less than they did before this, because I know that they realize now that they have so much.”
• Let them struggle
As parents, we want to protect our children from challenges and suffering, but Carter says by always fixing problems or shielding them from difficult subjects, we teach them that they are entitled to things.
“Let them learn that they can cope on their own,” Carter said. “Let them know that it’s not that bad to struggle, that you’re not entitled to a life free of struggle.”
Don’t put your children in danger or deprive them of their basic needs, but don’t always parachute in when they have a problem with their homework or forget their gym uniform. Let them figure it out, or go without. They will learn that everyone has bumps in the road, and that they have to work to overcome obstacles.
• De-emphasize the gifts
Wendy Philleo, executive director of the Center for a New American Dream, says she limits her two children, ages 8 and 6, to one gift each from Santa and one from Mom and Dad. She suggests asking your children what they love about the holidays that has nothing to with getting things.
“Tell them that’s not what this is about,” said Philleo, who lives in Charlottesville, Va. “We often find that, more than anything else, what kids want is time with their families. It’s great to brainstorm early on about what experiences you want to have as a family. Make sure they’re part of that conversation.”
Philleo said she has always given her children two gifts at Christmas. It might be hard to start limiting children who are used to receiving a lot of presents, but you can try to pare down a little each year and have the relatives cut back as well.
Said Froh, “You can have your laundry list of ideas, but it doesn’t mean Santa is going to bring everything and it doesn’t mean Santa should bring everything.”
If you emphasize the traditions and togetherness of the holidays, and don’t make a big deal about the gifts, Carter said, that will help your child focus on what’s important. She points out that when your child grows up, she’s not going to remember what toys she did or didn’t get (even if she threw a tantrum about it in the moment). She will, however, remember the traditions and family activities.
• Start early, and model what you want them to value
As with everything with children, the earlier you start something, the more likely it is to become a habit.
Very young children can learn to say thank you and count their blessings, but to really understand and feel gratitude, Froh said, they have to be old enough to step outside themselves and grasp the intent of a gift, the cost to the other person, and how it made them feel to receive it. This goes for gifts of time and help in addition to presents.
For example, Froh said, if your child is struggling with math, and her friend misses soccer practice to help her study for a big test, and your child then gets a good grade, it can be a valuable gratitude lesson. She will see that her friend cared enough about her to give up something she really loved, and she in turn benefited from the gift of her friend’s time.
Froh also said that if you show your children that you value nature or relationships with people or traditions more than a new phone or jewelry, instead of just telling them what they should be grateful for, they will get the message.
“It’s something parents have to pay attention to and cultivate on a daily basis, not just keep a gratitude journal for a week,” Froh said. “But it’s well worth the effort.”