Every third Thursday in November, we celebrate Thanksgiving here in America. Traditionally, Thanksgiving here means stuffing yourself within an inch of your elastic waistband, deep frying a turkey until someone ends up in the emergency department, and a sugar and wine-soaked bacchanal. Should not the name imply more, well, giving of thanks?
Last year, facing my daughter’s looming second birthday, I tried to commandeer my family into donating food for a local rescue mission instead of bringing sides for the potluck dinner. Many sweaty hours later, I had sort of forgotten to deliver the 3 cans and singular box of potato flakes and was covered in sugar, flour, and gravy bits. This year I wondered, is there a better way of teaching toddlers gratitude, the true spirit of Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving and Gratitude
Thanksgiving began as a harvest celebration, a way to try to unite two disparate cultures who did not traditionally get along. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag in Plymouth, Massachusetts sat down together to give thanks for literally not starving, as they finally had their first successful harvest. My sister and I fighting over the last Pepperidge Farm dinner roll doesn’t quite stack up in terms of the giving of thanks.
As parents in this day and age, I think many of us become pre-occupied with the idea of how to teach gratitude to our kids. Sometimes it seems to be a quality lacking on social media and in daily human interactions. When I buy a cup of tea at Starbucks, few people ever say “thank you” to the baristas. Should this be the new normal? I think we should all work towards a kinder, more grateful society.
Do Toddlers Even Grasp the Concept?
It is hard to imagine that the headstrong, stubborn Kamikaze running circles around your living room with underwear on her head can grasp the concept of gratitude. Research, though, indicates that even as young as 15-18 months, kids can begin to see what it means. Children at that age understand they are different from their parent, but the parent is doing things to make them happy or comfortable. Cookies, hugs, etc. All children develop at different rates, but their understanding of gratitude grows with improvements in communication skills and empathy.
Ideas for Teaching Toddlers Gratitude
Have you read the PBS Parents list of 10 Ways to Raise a Grateful Kid?
In short, it involves:
- adding “thank you” to the daily vernacular at home
- practicing what you preach
- having patience
- incorporating gratitude and appropriate expectations into daily life
- encouraging expressions of gratitude on a routine basis.
An article in The Atlantic brings up the point that in order to be grateful, kids need to be given less. Less choices at mealtimes, fewer options at the toy store. These struggles lead to better decision-making ability and gratitude for what they have. In the Atlantic article, the author recommends involving kids in the buying food and cooking process, as well as to challenge kids to be more mindful when selecting toys. A post on Parenting helpfully acknowledges that teaching gratitude to kids is a long process. It divides common situations, like my kid who whines about going shopping for his friend’s birthday present, into “in the moment” vs “long term” strategies.
How do we teach gratitude in the real world?
For me, all of the information boils down to three things:
- Model the behavior you want. Thank yourself and thank others. The first step in being a caregiver is always to care for yourself.
- Teach kids value. We live in California, water is the most precious commodity. Little V, though, loves to wash dishes and water plants with the hose. We set timers and limits, then say, “we will need that water soon. Thank you for respecting that.” It also jibes with the theme of the Atlantic and Parenting articles, that kids who get less appreciate what they have more.
- Have patience. Like everything with parenting, you will have good days and bad days. There are days my daughter explodes into sobs while pleading for “I say thank you, I want cookie–waaaaaaaah.” Kids are fun, right?
Volunteering and charitable donations can also go a long way towards teaching gratitude. The sensical part of me knows that my daughter is 2 and does not understand the plight of others. Hopefully though by starting early and involving her in volunteerism and charity, the real world may hit her with less of a jolt.
Little V and Me
Even when she was 4 months old, I would whisper, “Thank you for not spitting up on me before I had to go to work today.” Just, you know, for example. I don’t think I even realized any of it had rubbed off on my kid until she was about 18 months old, craving cookies, and stared up at me with those beautiful wide puppy eyes, and said, “tank you mama.” Well, I mean, who could resist giving her an extra cookie after that?
Now at school when another classmate knocks over a tower she has built, she calmly states, “please don’t do that,” and goes back to rebuilding her architectural empire. She says “thank you” when we bring her the water she has requested or let her pick out one piece of candy at the grocery store. I still don’t think she understands the larger impact of please and thank you, though. I’m sure that will come later along with empathy (fingers crossed anyway).
Working Parent Weekend Guilt
We do not teach her well about the art of appreciation for what she has. My husband jokingly calls it “working parent weekend guilt.” We try to set strict rules before we undertake any weekend or after-school errands, telling V firmly she can only get “one thing.” We try to be firm, but we often falter. The issue arises that sometimes we go multiple places in one weekend, and V gets “one toy” at three different places. I think we need to implement more ‘no spend’ days. I like what Kara Carrero, whose website community supports that parents do not have to be perfect, says about ideas for intentional gift giving at the holidays. Plus, I think that teaching V more appreciation will help her in school and in life.
Importance when Traveling
Often, when traveling, “please” and “thank you” are often the first words I try to learn in any language. Even if I cannot verbalize more than that and “bathroom,” people happily direct me to the toilets. I distinctly recall one of the first few French lessons in high school, where we learned how highly French value simple manners. Per my high school French teacher, not saying “bonjour” and “merci” to every person you meet was akin to slapping them on the cheek. Little V’s small expressions of thanks opened a lot of doors for us on our international travels.
For me, gratitude implies tolerance. It means taking some time to understand simple cultural differences that have a big impact. Gratitude implies respect, just like the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag may have felt they shared little in common, but both groups put aside their cultural differences so they express gratitude for a successful harvest and mutual respect for the Earth that provided it.
All any of us can do each day is try. Try to be better for our kids, to teach them what they need to know to be successful. I would love to hear your ideas on this as well. How do you teach toddlers gratitude?
This Thanksgiving, I am donating to No Kid Hungry. I’m not going to drive myself crazy trying to drop off supplies, because V does not understand that yet anyway. I will encourage V to thank her family at the dinner table. I already press-ganged her into decorating some thank you cards for her nanny and our mailman.
Today and every day, I am grateful for three things: my family, my family, and my family. To them, I say “thank you” as I never say it enough. Thank you, little V, for brightening every day. Thank you to my husband, who is the one of the two people in the world who truly understand me. Thank you to my parents and siblings for being my best friends. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.