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Helping Young Children Learn Gratitude

The Children Movement is excited to feature on a regular basis the expert advice of well-established blogger Lina Acosta Sandaal. Parent skill-building as one of The Movement’s core pillars, which is why it has put expanding Help Me Grow Florida, a 24-hour parenting resource, at the center of its 2017 legislative agenda.

By Lina Acosta Sandaal

As Thanksgiving nears, parents have a good opportunity to teach their young children about gratitude.

Some parents I work with have complained that their children are not grateful for what they have and believe it is intrinsic in them to “want things.” That is partly true. Children, like most humans, seek pleasure and ease. As parents, we can make that situation worse by rewarding good behavior rather than allowing them to experience the satisfaction of doing something that makes them feel good inside.

Children are often motivated by connections with their parents or caregivers. Gratitude, like social norms and emotional language, can be taught. Make this Thanksgiving the time to make gratitude and giving a part of children’s lives:

For children under 3:

It is a mixture of you prompting kindness and gratitude and guiding your children through it. For example, show them a photo of someone coming to dinner, like Grandma or Grandpa, and then encourage them to make their own drawing from that. Then let them present their work to the person and watch them reap the rewards.

After Thanksgiving is over, add to your routine a time where they help out mommy or daddy. Tell them something like “help mommy by bringing your diaper” when it’s time to change it. You may have already noticed that little one like to pretend helping you. Don’t miss these opportunities, even if it takes you longer because they are “assisting” you. This is a natural way for them to learn to give.

For children 4 to 7:

Children in this age group can understand how someone else may need help or may have less than them. One of the primary developmental markers is understanding social norms and learning to be a friend. It is important to build in them the idea of being grateful for what they have.

Here’s one way: Before Thanksgiving dinner begins, put them in charge of asking everyone what they are grateful for, and then reporting on it at dinner to the whole family. If they can’t write yet, give them a helper to write for them. This will be a fun experiment and a way for them to feel part of the big event while also learning from others what gratitude means.

This age group can also help you serve or deliver food to people who are less fortunate. Check with a local food bank about volunteer opportunities. Don’t worry that doing this will scare children or make them feel bad. On the contrary, it usually gives them a sense of pride and gratitude for what they have at home.

The more opportunities you can give them for give back and experience the joy of helping others, the more it will become part of their character.

Also, try adding a daily gratitude question to your children’s routine. At dinner or bedtime, ask them: What was the best part of your day? What was the worst part of your day? What are you grateful for? Get them accustomed to these questions and it will soon become part of their internal thought process.

Young children are motivated by relationships and connections at home, and they need to earn HOW to be good citizens. Be the person who guides them, as they are primed for the information.

Lina Acosta Sandaal of Miami has a master’s degree in clinical psychology. The mother of two is the founder and program director of Stop Parenting Alone. She began her career at Vista del Mar in Los Angeles, where she developed expertise in child and adolescent development and early childhood mental health while strengthening her resolve to support families. She has trained and participated in research studies with Yale’s Minding the Baby, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and Child Trauma Research Program of San Francisco. In 2015, she was named Mujer Legendaria de Ford for quality in her field.