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Please Stop Saying *This* If You Want to Teach Your Kids Gratitude (And What to Do Instead)

‘Tis the season for gift-giving and sugary treats which means that for parents, it’s also time for an increase in tantrums and bratty behavior. Of course, you want your child to accept Nana's thoughtful holiday gift with open arms and a heartfelt “thank you so much!” but, well, your kid is just as likely to look disappointed (she wanted the other Pokémon bundle) and barely mutter a “thanks” before running off to play with something else. So, how do we teach our kids gratitude this holiday season (and beyond)? Here to help is therapist Christina Furnival with some practical tips.

OK, so let’s go back to the scenario above. As your child rips open the wrapping paper, you immediately prompt them to “say thank you!” 

But here’s the rub: Even if your child begrudgingly does say “thank you,” you haven’t actually taught them anything about gratitude. Instead, they’re just repeating your words. (Kind of like how forcing your kid to say “I’m sorry” doesn’t actually work, either.) If you really want your offspring to feel true appreciation and gratitude, you’re going to have to work a little harder (but, like, not too hard). Here are three therapist-approved techniques to do exactly that. 

1. Model gratitude using a variety of phrasing

“The best way to support our children to learn our values—in this case, being thankful—is to model what we want our children to mimic,” says Furnival. So how do we do that? Say out loud what you appreciate from your children’s actions and mix up the language you use. For example, you could say, ‘Thank you for putting your shoes away’ or ‘I really appreciate that you came to the room when I asked you to’ or even ‘Gosh, I feel so happy when you show kindness to your sister!’ Per Furnival: “Thankfulness can be demonstrated in so many ways beyond the standard ‘thank you’, and this approach enables your children to understand more deeply what it means to be thankful.”

2. Practice in-the-moment gratitude with your children

As parents, it’s easy to get so caught up in the day-to-day that we often forget to stop and appreciate the small stuff. “Be mindful of the myriad opportunities to be grateful, and intentionally point them out with your children,” advises Furnival. Think: ‘Wow, I am so thankful that the sun is shining down on us today. Thank you, sun!’ or ‘I just adore holding your hand while we walk. I feel so grateful that you’re my kid.’ Kids are great mimics, remember? When you start saying what you’re thankful for, your child may just follow suit.

3. Institute a daily or weekly gratitude practice at mealtime

Start a ritual of gratitude, suggests Furnival. “The more you and your children express gratitude, the more you realize there is for you and them to be grateful for! By engaging in a practice of being thankful, you initiate a positive feedback loop where you find even more things to appreciate.”

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