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Raising Gracious Children: 3 Ways to Help Kids Say Thanks

This is an article I wrote originally published by the Huffington Post. You can find the original article here, on the Huffington Post Parents blog.

The holidays are over now, and all of us are thinking ahead to our goals and ambitions for the new year. Nevertheless, if you’re a parent, I urge you and your children to take one last look at the 2012 holiday season together. This is a perfect time to help your kids discover the joy of gratitude.

Below are three ways you can show young people that it’s fun to say “thank you” for the gifts and blessings they receive at Christmas time. (It is also, of course, the right thing to do.)

With any luck, your children will be exchanging gifts with family and friends for the rest of their lives, and these habits will help them grow into gracious young adults.

In Person

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With parties and presents still fresh in everyone’s minds, it’s a great time to reminisce about family gatherings. Ask your child to tell you stories about the holidays, reenacting the look on Granny’s face when she opened a gift — the sillier and more exaggerated, the better! For 3- and 4-year olds, this is a great way to review feelings vocabulary and explore facial expressions associated with emotions. For slightly older children, this can lead to a simple conversation about being aware of others’ feelings.

Ask your children questions: How did Granny look? How did the person who gave her the gift look? How did they, the children, feel seeing their loved ones so happy? And what will they do to help create that happiness the next time they participate in a gift exchange?

Play a party game in which children pretend it’s their birthday and open imaginary gifts. Help them to practice pausing after opening each gift, looking the gift-giver in the eye and thanking him or her.

You can also try playing at a tea party, where the “guest” gives the “host” a cake. What should the “host” say? How does it feel to get such a lovely cake? Demonstrate gratitude for good company, as well as gifts: the “guest” can say thanks for the party invitation, and the “host” can say thanks for coming. Switch roles so your child can watch you model proper behavior and try it herself.

As you giggle and play games with your child, make sure to emphasize that gratitude is about more than enjoying the presents or party — it’s also about being grateful for the people around us.

On the Phone

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Sometimes it’s impossible for all our friends and family to gather for a celebration. If your children can’t say thanks in person, encourage them to pick up the phone.

Some children get a bit shy about ringing people they don’t speak to frequently, but you can help with this by rehearsing ahead of time with a game. Take turns pretending to be the caller. Be excited in both roles and emphasize how happy you are when he calls you about his gift.

With a bit of help, any child who can articulate “thank you” can say it into the phone. A 2- or 3-year-old should be able to say a simple “thank you for my puzzle.” Coach 4- and 5-year olds to talk about using or planning to use the gift (“Hello, Aunt Marge, this is Jack. Thank you for the dinosaur puzzle. I began it today all by myself. I think it’s a stegosaurus…”), and when you role-play, exaggerate how good it feels to Aunt Marge to hear those details. By age 6 or 7, children won’t need prompting during the call, but acting it out ahead of time is still great practice. Play-acting helps children to develop empathy and be mindful of others’ feelings, and after role-playing the calls a few times, picking up a real phone should be less intimidating.

You can make the process of calling and writing easier by keeping track of gifts as they are opened. For children old enough to write unaided, it’s best to have them take responsibility for keeping the list, but you can help by having a pencil and paper at the ready. Tracking what gifts they receive and from whom is another way to cultivate gratitude by building awareness of the connection between person and present.

Thank-You Notes

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Even some grown-ups wince and slowly back away when they hear “thank-you notes.” While thank-you notes were non-negotiable when I was growing up, I admit to grumbling at my mum’s insistence on them as a follow-up to telephone or in-person thanks. But thank-you notes needn’t feel like a chore, and with a bit of advance planning, you can get children excited by making the notes a fun activity.

Assemble a box ahead of time filled with colorful paper, tape, glue sticks, markers and a new sheet of stickers. Label it the “Gratitude Box,” and explain that this is a special box for showing thanks. Any child old enough to hold a crayon can participate, and siblings can easily work side by side.

Children as young as 3 can decorate a card that mum or dad writes out, while a 4-year-old might dictate a sentence or two and should be able to add her name at the bottom. Starting at 5 or 6, she can be expected to write out a short note with a bit of coaching.

For an older child, picking out his own stationery can be part of the fun. Have an adventure choosing something from a special shop, or use a free website or program to customize official-looking letterhead to print off and handwrite notes on.

At this time of year, you likely have your own thank-you notes to write. Doing them at the same time is a terrific way to cross them off your to-do list, set a good example to your children, and spend time together as a family.

One fun craft idea I’ve used for thank-you notes is to take a picture of your child with the gift, and let her cut and paste it onto the note. You can take photos as the presents are opened and develop them later, or take them just before writing the notes and print them at home. Either way, most children adore projects with cutting and pasting, and it helps to personalize the letters.

As for the content of the note, specificity is key: “Dear Henry, I love the Millennium Falcon Legos. Star Wars is my favorite movie!” is miles better than “Dear Henry, Thank you for the present.”

Even if the gift wasn’t a favorite, the note can acknowledge the giver’s intentions and say something sincere and specific, like “Dear Nana, Thank you for the scarf. It must have taken a long time to make. It is warm.” Avoid the temptation to lie or exaggerate; however well-intentioned, parent-approved fibbing sends the wrong message, and it simply isn’t necessary.

Not only do these games and activities teach good manners, they also foster empathy and help children internalize the appreciation they express. As a nanny, I’ve noticed a distinct increase in the sense of entitlement among young children, and that’s a difficult pattern to break. In my experience, it’s far easier to start teaching appreciation and awareness of others’ feelings early on than it is to work backwards when you find yourself with a Veruca Salt on your hands. While it’s natural for parents to want to give their children everything, make sure that along with toys and praise, you give your children the regular reinforcement that makes thankfulness a part of who they are, not just something they do.

In A Short History of England, G.K. Chesterton says that “thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” With games, crafts and quality time together, you can help your child reap the benefits of an attitude of gratitude.

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Speaking of Marriage

Winifred M. Reilly, M.A., MFT

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