We all want to raise the kid who says please and thank you and picks up the fast food cup some jerk dropped just a foot from the garbage can—aka the kid who is not that cup-dropping jerk.
But how do you raise a gracious child? When the average 11-year-old is walking around with a $600 smartphone in their hands and the word “entitlement” is thrown around like it’s going out of style, instilling gratitude in your kids can feel like climbing a mountain.
But before you throw up your hands, here are a few practical tips to consider.
What’s the big deal, anyway?
It’s pretty obvious that gratitude is a part of being a good human being. Teaching our kids to appreciate the things they have and the people around them—helping them be kind to other humans and the earth—is part of raising good citizens who will give back to the world at large as adults.
But we’re not just doing it for the world. Teaching gratitude benefits our kids themselves, too.
Scientists have found ample evidence that being gracious actually helps make us healthier people, both physically and mentally. Researchers at the University of Manchester in England, for example, found that adults who wrote in a gratitude journal fell asleep faster and stayed asleep longer than those who skipped the practice. Better sleep isn’t all they can get out of the deal. Researchers in Taiwan looked at gratitude in athletes back in 2013 and they found a correlation between athletes’ gratitude and boosted self-esteem.
So how do we get our kids sleeping better, feeling better about themselves, and geared up to grow into the philanthropic nice guys and girls we want to be around?
Whether it’s birthday cash from Grandma or $5 they picked up dog-sitting for the neighbors, kids love having their own money. Teaching them early on that money isn’t just for spending can help them not only learn wise money-management skills but also offer up some lessons in gratitude.
Begin the practice of having them split their money three ways: Some can be spent, some can be saved, and some should be set aside to give to a local charity of their choosing. It doesn’t have to be much (that $5 for dog-sitting won’t go that far anyway!), but even small donations that come from the heart instill a message that goes both ways.
To help keep it going, create a give/save/spend jar for their separate sums, or buy a cool piggy bank with different slots for the money.
2. Talk the talk.
Giving money (and food, clothes, and toys) to charity is a wonderful thing. Lives can be changed by donations. But anyone who spends time volunteering will tell you that physically getting out there and doing something tangible for a charity they support offers something mere donations don’t: A chance to see the fruits of your labor.
Take the kids to the local animal shelter to cuddle some cats who don’t get a lot of love. Tackle a messy roadside with garbage bags and gloves. Swing by the homeless shelter and ask if they need help dicing potatoes or serving soup. Your kids won’t just make a difference; they’ll get to see why giving back matters.
3. Make it a game.
You don’t need to drag kids to the thankful mountain. Bring the mountain to them with games that sneak lessons on gratitude into the fun. Do they love playing Uno? Make whoever throws down a wild card say the name of one person they’re thankful for. Are they fans of hopscotch? Each time they land on an odd number, they have to offer up one place they’re thankful for. You know your kids best, and you can help ensure that their creativity, gratitude, and love of play unite.
4. Practice what you preach.
As their role models, it’s on us not just to remind kids to show appreciation and kindness but to do it ourselves. Think of how many times you said “Mama” until they finally associated the sounds with you: the person. Now consider how many times you will have to say “please” and “thank you” before it sinks in. You’re welcome!
5. Write it down.
It’s not always easy to appreciate the people we live with, especially when they’re hogging the bathroom in the morning or eating the last of the cereal. Creating a family kindness ritual can change that. Ask everyone in your household to write kind notes for Mom and Dad, siblings, kiddos, and even spouses on Post-its and have them stick their notes of gratitude up in surprising places. If your kids are too young to write, you can do it for them. Not only will the act of writing their grateful thoughts down require your child to think about the good in others, but finding a surprising place to post the note (and knowing they might find some for themselves, too) will keep the giving and receiving of gratitude fun.