As a teacher, my greatest mission is to develop, improve, and broaden the awareness and significance of proper manners and essential life skills. My work is primarily with young children and teenagers and I know that, when it comes to teaching the meaning of gratitude, this is not by nature an easy task. But it certainly is an important one.
Children do not tend naturally to act out of gratitude. Oftentimes, many will appear to be selfish and self-centered, thinking only of their immediate gratification. This “me first” mentality limits their valuing of anyone else’s needs or feelings. But it is our responsibility not to raise spoiled or rude children, who often feel entitled to their every demand. As parents, we need to stop giving so much and start teaching the meaning of gratitude.
According to Barbara Lewis, author of What Do You Stand For? For Kids (Free Spirit Publishing, 2005), thankful children are more polite and pleasant to be around. But there's more to it than that. By learning gratitude, children become sensitive to the feelings of others, developing empathy and other life skills along the way. They learn to place value on things of genuine importance as opposed to things of momentary appeal.
To begin the process of developing this central trait, a parent’s own manners should regularly mirror the behavior and speech desired in the child. It is by teaching young people, through example, how to be grateful towards others that we raise people with appreciative minds and generous hearts rather than selfish attitudes.
My own relating to gratitude has to do with the one big lesson that I learned from my parents: A good education is not to be taken for granted but rather treasured for life. They worked very hard and sacrificed a great deal so that the six of us could go to good schools. With those sacrifices, came fewer toys and no random shopping trips or excessive treats outside the usual holiday season or our birthdays. And, guess what, we didn’t suffer for the lack of “stuff.”
My parents never took for granted the value or importance of a strong community of friends and neighbors, whose similar beliefs in the care of others, improvement to our surroundings, and strong ethics were the core to a good life. Your word was your bond and a decent job provided families with a home and put food on the table. We didn’t take the essentials for granted as kids because our parents taught us—mostly by example—to be grateful for everything we had and to see that life was good because of their hard work and gratitude.
Of course, it’s not only kids that need to be reminded. Many of us go about our daily lives obsessed with the daily gleam of nonstop advertisements of material wealth and the need to be like the “Joneses” next door. Yet, we all know that, at the end of the day, when illness strikes or death is upon our doorstep, we will proclaim that we would give up everything for just another day with a loved one or to restore them (or ourselves) to health.
Still, no one is “born grateful,” says life coach Mary Jane Ryan, author of Attitudes of Gratitude (Conari, 1999). "Recognizing that someone has gone out of their way for you is not a natural behavior for children -- it's learned."
One excellent approach to help increase the level of gratitude in your home is to select a "thanking" part of the day. Make saying what good things happened that day a part of the dinnertime conversation or as the children dress for bed or your teenager settles down for the night. Work on saying “No” to your children. It might be hard at times, but it will be impossible for your child to ever feel grateful if every wish is granted. Quite simply, saying “No” sometimes will make “Yes” all that much more appreciated.
In the end, children have to understand, and we all stand to be reminded of, the importance of gratitude for things that money can’t buy like, love, health, education, a just society, and safe environment. But this will happen only if these things matter to the adults around them. Maybe, just maybe, teaching children that these are the real treasures to be grateful for will make the future world a better place to live in. And perhaps they will be infused with an enduring satisfaction in a sustainable and happy life rather than racing towards one of ever-unsatisfied yearning where real gratitude does not exist.