Toddlers and preschoolers are learning gratitude from their parents through on-going routines and rituals. Daily expressions of giving and receiving thanks give children a powerful sense of being valued and helpful, of being capable and significant. Two simple words teach children about themselves and the world. Two simple words teach children the world is kind, generous and loving. Thank you. Saying thanks, giving thanks, hearing thanks create essential connections of love, pride and belonging.
In this over-praising, me-mine-now culture, it's easy to lose the foundation of authentic self-esteem. Too often, children receive false praise or empty praise - the generic trophy that they know isn't deserved or isn't a true recognition of who they are or something they did. Children yearn to be recognized for who they are and encouraged for meaningful actions. And even toddlers know when they are being manipulated according to someone else's agenda. Genuine gratitude is a true gift. So, instead of superficial praise, consider a new gratitude routine for your family.
Thank your children
Phrases like "good job" or "good girl - good boy" only go so far. They begin to sound like "have a nice day" - rote and shallow. Saying "thank you", especially with a description of the helpful behavior, lets your child know loud-n-clear that he contributes to the well being of your family. Thank you for holding my hand in the parking lot - it feels so snug in there. Thank you for sitting at the table while I finish my dinner - I like talking with you. Thank you for helping to pick up your toys - there are so many I can barely count all of them.
Children who hear appreciation and gratitude are more likely to express appreciation and gratitude. When you marinate your child in kindness and thoughtfulness, she is learning lifelong social-emotional skills of how to understand feelings and to get along with others. Oppositional behavior and age-appropriate testing are inevitable. But a foundation of gratitude makes the challenges more bearable as well as resilience more likely. Rudeness, impatience, even outright meanness are part of every child's repertoire of immature behavior but, when balanced with moments of mutual respect and competence, children rebound quicker from the negative spirals.
An encouragement vocabulary
A home with gratitude mirrors back to the child a positive image of himself and his family. Consider all the words that describe your child's strengths in a variety of situations: smart, brave, strong, busy, helpful, kind, caring, loving, determined, persistent, flexible, hard working, quiet, loud - has a big voice at the right time and place. These are all the things that make you grateful. E.G., thank you for calling me when you needed help (even though you scared the bejeebies out of me). This feedback helps your child make good choices in the future as you explain how her actions affect other people.
Expressions of gratitude celebrate who your child is now while unlocking your child's potential for the future. It's essential that you stay connected to your child's unique strengths and gifts and not use "encouragement" to change your child into something she is not. And, it's tremendously important to break out of gender stereotypes - girls ARE strong and brave; boys ARE sweet and gentle.
Daily gratitude review
The dinner table, or any place you gather as a family on a daily basis - the car, bathtime, bedtime before going to individual beds, can be one constant in the day where children and parents count on a gratitude connection. Children and parents deserve 5 minutes a day when they know they are valued and appreciated. Begin with a ritualized "thank you" to every person in the family: for kids - starting the day with a smile (even if it all went downhill from there), playing with the dog, brushing teeth, or trying the yucky spinach; for parents - going to work today, an extra book at bedtime, laughing over spilled milk, or loving the kids "no matter what" (see children's book, No Matter What by Deb Gliori).
Expand to other kinds of appreciation and gratitude:
• things our family does best
• things we appreciate about grandparents, teachers, neighbors, community helpers
• thankful for food, shelter, clothing, toys
• gratitude for favorite places, weather, activities
• grateful for things that make our lives easier and things that are worth working hard at
Daily gratitude expresses the values that define and sustain your family identity. In just 5 minutes a day, you notice the good things in every day and create a daily reprieve from the stress and busyness of the world. Being grateful isn't just once a year holiday. It's a celebration of being a family and one of the keys to your child's lifelong happiness.