Why Being Grateful Isn’t Something You Teach


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We can command a child to say ‘thank you’ but this won’t ensure that they feel grateful or appreciative towards someone.  The place gratitude arises from consists of more than just words, in fact, it is a matter of the heart. The problem lies in thinking emotions are lessons to be learned rather than feelings that need to be felt.

While we want our children to demonstrate socially acceptable behaviour, we also need to take a step back and consider what drives gratitude in the first place? Sometimes kids say ‘thank you’ spontaneously. At other times, we may tell them to say thank you without considering if they feel gratitude. Why is this important? Because we can set our kids up to give caring performances that are devoid of any true meaning.

How do we nurture a caring spirit in our kids?

Emotions don’t obey the same rules as learning facts or lessons. Emotions happen to us as we are stirred up by our environment and moved to act in a certain way. If we want our children to feel grateful, then we need to consider whether they have caring feelings from which gratitude arises.

A caring spirt is what underlies the capacity to feel warmth, love, and appreciation towards others. What we need to nurture most of all in our kids is a caring spirt but this is not done through lessons, rewards, bribes, or threats. Caring spirits are created by adults who care for a child and form a relationship with them. In other words, a child’s instincts to care about others stems from being cared for by others.

We nourish our kids through our invitation for relationship and by giving them a sense belonging, sameness, significance, caring, being known and being with. Our job is to preserve their hearts so that they can feel vulnerable feelings and be moved by their caring. Hearts can get hardened and vulnerable feelings can go missing when caring repeatedly sets you up to get hurt.

It is the warmth of others that allows a child to develop their full human potential as a caring being. We need to preserve our children’s soft hearts as it is not only the birthplace of gratitude but is also required for the realization of human potential. To care is what makes us fully human and humane. We need to preserve and protect the roots from which gratitude arises by caring for our children’s emotions.

Preserving and protecting a child’s caring spirit  

There is no problem in wanting our children to demonstrate manners but there is problem when we put the focus on their behaviour without considering the feelings that underlie them. When the actions they take, or the form they adopt, mean more to us than what drives them, then we can divorce their caring spirit from their caring behaviour. ‘Thank you’ can be reduced to words that are said out of social obligations and expectations rather than from a place of caring about what someone has done. When we focus on our child’s performance we can convey that it is this that matters most of all, rather than how they have used their caring to give true expressions of gratitude. We often do this in with statements such as, “that’s a good girl – say thank you,” or “be kind and say thank you.”  A better statement would be, “do you have any thank you’s in you to give to this person?”

Our preoccupation with manners can depersonalize and detach our children from the caring that should drive them. While we can command our kids to give caring performances they may lack any depth. In short, we don’t want to put ‘form’ before ‘spirit.’ We want to make sure there are feelings of gratitude in a child before cueing them to say thank you.


Three Strategies for Cultivating Grateful Kids 

  1. Prime their ‘thank you’ by drawing out their caring spirit first – If we know our child is going to be in a situation where expressions of gratitude are expected, we can prime them to consider the context and what will come with it. For example, at their birthday party we can cue them before it starts to think about their friends and family members that will be there and how excited they are to see them. We can talk about the effort people will be making to come to celebrate with the child, as well as draw out how the child cares about their visitors. We can remind them that when they feel ‘thank you’s’ in them after someone has been warm or kind to them, that it would be appropriate to express this. Young kids can often get lost in the moment so reminding them with phrases such as, “do you have any thank you’s for your grandparents?” might help them get there. 

  1. Orient them to appropriate ways of expressing gratitude – When we see our children are appreciative and thankful, we can cue them as to appropriate forms of gratitude. For example, we may tell them that a hug is okay if they feel like it, or a handshake, or a simple thank you. Helping a child write thank you notes can also help them understand the many ways we can show our appreciation towards others.

  1. Preserve their caring spirit in the act of gift giving – A gift is meant to be a token of our caring and appreciation of others. Helping our kids consider what gifts they would like to give someone encourages the act to be one of true caring. Sometimes an emphasis on homemade gifts can help bring out their caring as well, from drawing pictures, making cards, to crafting projects. At Christmas I encourage my children to make a gift for everyone in their family that comes from their heart. Over the years this has led to many thoughtful and special gifts. It also preserves the meaning of Christmas as a time to offer caring and warmth to each other.

Gratitude is a matter for the heart but this hasn’t stopped us from trying to teach our children to feel thankful. When we divorce acts of caring from the feelings that should drive them we set our kids up to give shallow and superficial performances. When we nurture their caring spirits and help give it some form, then we can be assured their gratitude will be genuine and nourish all those who receive it.

Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and Director of Kid’s Best Bet, a counselling and family resource center. For more information please see www.macnamara.ca and www.neufeldinstitute.org.