With families across the country preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving — a holiday very much about gratitude — about 4 in 5 parents say their children are missing an attitude of gratitude.
These are the results of a new poll published today by researchers at the University of Michigan. The nationwide poll included the responses of about 1,125 parents, whose children are between four and ten years old.
Likewise, more than half of parents worry that they are pampering their kids in this regard.
But the poll also reports that most parents are unhappy with this situation, and say that teaching their children gratitude is a matter of high priority.
Many parents are embarrassed by their kids’ selfishness
More specifically, the poll found about 80% of parents saying that today’s kids are not sufficiently grateful for what they have.
And about 40% even said that they are occasionally “embarrassed” by their child’s selfish behavior.
Examples include such as refusing to share with other kids, or complaining that they don’t like a gift they have received.
One of the poll’s co-authors, Sarah Clark, said that often parents compare today’s situation to their own upbringing.
An attitude of gratitude needs to be taught and nurtured
“Gratitude is not something that children usually acquire automatically,” Clark said. “It needs to be nurtured.”
Teaching this gratitude is important for a number of reasons, which extend well beyond assuaging parents’ embarrassment.
Past research has shown that gratitude is linked to positive feelings, stronger relationships, greater enjoyment, and various health benefits, Clark points out.
Plus, proactively teaching gratitude seems to work.
“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.
Nearly all parents polled agree that it’s possible to teach children to be grateful, but they used different strategies.
5 ways parents they teach their children an attitude of gratitude
- Making ‘thank you’ a regular phrase
Among the most common ways parents say they teach their kids to be appreciative: reminding them to mind their manners. Some 88% of parents regularly have their child say please and thank you, while 11% do this occasionally, and 1% rarely do it.
But children shouldn’t just be citing these words on auto pilot without understanding their meaning.
“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.
This can be as simple as taking the time to say ‘thank you for…’ with a brief explanation that describes why they’re thankful, Clark says.
Birthdays, holidays and other gift-giving events also create an opportunity for parents to encourage children to appreciate both the gift and the giver. But just a fourth of parents say their child makes thank-you cards for gifts regularly while 41% do so occasionally and 34% say it rarely happens.
“Children of all ages can make or write thank-you cards to express their gratitude for a gift. They can share why they appreciate the gift and how they’ll use it,” Clark said.
- Talking about an attitude of gratitude
Taking time to reflect on what family members are grateful for at the dinner table or other times during the day is another way families promote gratitude.
Nearly two thirds of parents say their family has daily conversations about what they’re grateful for while about 36% regularly say prayers about what they’re thankful for.
“Parents can model gratitude for their kids by describing what they’re thankful for out loud every day,” Clark said. “This could be sharing something positive they appreciated during their day or general gratitude about health, family and what they have.”
- Contributing to family chores
Another common strategy parents use to teach their child to be grateful is having them do chores to help the family. Three in five parents polled say they do this regularly while about a third occasionally involve their children in household tasks.
To help younger children understand the connection, parents can explain that everyone in the family has a responsibility to help each other, and then point out how different family members contribute to the household in different ways.
“This can help children to appreciate their role in the ‘greater good’ and nurtures their sense of gratitude,” Clark said.
Nearly two-thirds of parents have involved their child in some type of volunteer or service activity, with half of them saying this has included informal help for neighbors or family members.
More than a third say their kids have contributed to their community through school activities, such as fundraisers or clean-up days. Others have helped their community through their place of worship or another organization.
“It’s a natural step to go from helping with household chores to volunteering with neighbors or at a school or community event,” Clark said. “To help nurture children’s sense of gratitude, parents may want to give an age-appropriate explanation of the reason for the activity and how it will be helpful to others.”
For example, “Mrs. Jones isn’t feeling well so we will help rake the leaves in her yard,” or “we’re helping to collect mittens and coats for children who don’t have any this winter.”
“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.”
A less common strategy to teach gratitude is having a child donate toys or clothes to charity (37% do so regularly, 46% occasionally and 17% rarely, according to the poll.) And just 13 % of parents say their child regularly donates their own money to charity.
Parents may consider involving children the next time they fill a donation box and talk about how those items they once played with or used can now benefit someone else, Clark said.
Children shouldn’t be forced to let go of anything but be part of the decision-making. They could get one keep box to fill with all of their favorite items, for example, and then get to pick how many things they’d like to consider donating.
“Children may be resistant to donating old toys at first not because they still want to play with them but possibly because they feel a lack of control,” Clark said.
“Parents should empower them to make these decisions themselves and gently help them see how their generosity could bring happiness to another child.”