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Parents Worry Kids Aren't Thankful Enough: Here's What to Do

New national poll shows four in five parents worry they overindulge their kids.

Key points

  • Eighty-one percent of parents agree that children today are not grateful for what they have.
  • Practical behaviors like volunteering, giving thanks, saying please and thank you, and doing chores help kids learn gratitude.
  • The most important way to teach kids gratitude is for parents to model the behavior themselves.

According to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, most American parents (81 percent) agree that children today are not grateful for what they have. More than half of parents also worry that they are overindulging their kids, and almost half of parents confessed to being embarrassed by how selfish their kids sometimes act.

At the same time, three-quarters of parents consider teaching their kids gratitude a high priority, and almost 90 percent have their kids say please and thank you. So, if raising thankful children is important, what's going wrong? And, more importantly, what can parents do about it?

Kids Today Really Do Have More

One reason parents are worried that their kids have too much is that they actually do have more than their parents did. The cost of toys has come down dramatically since most of today's parents were kids. For instance, a toy that cost $20 in 1977 would cost only $7.97 today. That allows families to buy kids a lot more stuff.

But the price of toys is not the only reason kids have more than their parents did. A parenting culture that emphasizes comfort over character is the bigger culprit. This parenting culture constantly sends parents the message that they should meet their children's needs instantly and perfectly. They should make kids feel better right away. They should not let their child be uncomfortable in case it causes them developmental harm. It's a culture I call the ShouldStorm.

Both of these factors together have led to a situation in which many kids don't have what was a universal experience in prior generations: having to wait for what they want. Because toys cost less, kids rarely have to wait the agonizing months it used to take to save up allowance for that thing they wanted. The act of saving up led to a real appreciation when the longed-for item arrived.

Teaching kids gratitude sometimes requires kids to feel what it is to not have something, and that might be uncomfortable. In the end, that's the only way kids can come to recognize the joy that comes when they do have.

Parents Have Lots of Ideas to Teach Gratitude

 Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health, 2021
Parent strategies to teach gratitude.
Source: Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health, 2021

According to the poll, which looked at a national sample of parents raising kids between the ages of 4 and 10 years, parents do make efforts to teach gratitude.

“We know that gratitude is associated with more positive emotions, having strong relationships, enjoying more experiences and even health benefits,” said Mott Poll co-director Sarah Clark, M.P.H. in a press release. “However, gratitude is not something that children usually acquire automatically; it needs to be nurtured, in an age-appropriate way.”

The good news is that when parents do make the effort, kids show more gratitude. “Parents who place a high priority on teaching their child gratitude are more likely to report their children exhibit behaviors associated with thankfulness and a willingness to give to others,” Clark said.

Parents do this in a number of ways. The number-one strategy for parents was to have their children say please and thank you regularly. However, Clark warns that if the words are simply automatic the kids might not be learning true gratitude. “There’s a difference between politeness and gratitude,” Clark said. “To help children learn to be grateful, parents also need to emphasize why they’re asking their child to say thanks."

Many parents reported having daily conversations about what they are grateful for or saying prayers of thanks at dinner. Other parents asked kids to do chores, which helps to teach gratitude if parents explain them as a way to contribute to the family. “This can help children to appreciate their role in the ‘greater good’ and nurtures their sense of gratitude,” Clark said.

Another common strategy was volunteering. Kids learn more from volunteering if parents explain why what they are doing can help. “Specific examples can help children understand and connect with others, which allows the volunteer activity to build a sense of empathy, kindness, and compassion,” Clark said. “After volunteering, parents may want to talk with children about their experience and how it made them feel.”

Why Don't Kids Express More Gratitude?

Some parents find that, despite their efforts, their child does not express much gratitude. So what might be going on?

There are three main possibilities: The most dreaded of all is that the kids have grown to feel entitled. In that case, parents can mindfully engage with some of the ideas in this article and have more direct conversations with their children.

The second is more common. The kids are not necessarily entitled, but they have not been taught to be mindful about what they have or what others do for them. Efforts directed at noticing can help kids stop taking things for granted.

And the third is that they are grateful and simply don’t know how to express it. This is much more common in introverted kids, and, if parents don't understand what's going on, they may criticize and shut the child down. Shy kids often benefit from a script and directed practice on how to use it. For example, teach a child the specific words to say when they order at a restaurant or their server brings food, and then help them say it. It's amazing how hard it can be for introverted kids, and how delighted and confident they feel once they master it.

Fernanda Greppe/Unsplash
Gratitude is shown to make us happier, which is why it's worth teaching it to kids.
Source: Fernanda Greppe/Unsplash

The Most Powerful Way to Teach Gratitude Is to Model It

Kids learn more from what we as parents do than from anything else. If parents do not model gratitude, they cannot expect it from their children. And one of the best ways to start modeling for our kids is by expressing gratitude to them.

Say thank you to your kids. And then specifically point out what they did and why you enjoyed or benefitted from it. For example, "It really helped me today when you unloaded the dishwasher before I asked you to, so I could just get dinner going without stressing." Or, "I appreciated the way you walked away when your brother yelled at you instead of continuing the fight. I am proud of you for that."

Also, mindfully express things in your life that you are thankful for. “Parents can model gratitude for their kids by describing what they’re thankful for out loud every day,” Clark said.

This is particularly effective when parents mention things we all normally take for granted. "I am grateful for that new traffic light they put in. That intersection was really hard to cross, and now I feel much safer when I drive through it." Or "I'm grateful for the person who collects the shopping carts in the parking lot. It's pretty cold today. When I was a kid no one did that and you had to wander around finding shopping carts that were everywhere."

Kids may need to be taught to feel and express gratitude, but when parents model for them and teach them, kids do become thankful.

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