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Raising Grateful, Kind Kids Starts With Model Behavior

All of us aspire to raise children who are fundamentally kind and thankful for what they have. But, such attributes, elementary though they may seem, are made, not born in children, according to Dr. Gail Lane, clinical director with Chenal Family Therapy in Bentonville.

“I don’t think that you necessarily come out of the gate knowing how to be kind or grateful,” she said. “I think of lot of kids today struggle with entitlement, feeling entitled to X, Y or Z, or a toy when they go to the store.”

Instead, such attributes are learned behaviors, a product of environment and socialization. Thus, the best way to inspire your little one to demonstrate these concepts is to model that behavior yourself. It’s advice Dr. Lane is trying to follow in her own house.

“I have a little one, Eloise. She is three, and gratitude has become a really big thing in our house,” she said. “Teaching my kid how to be kind is something that I’ve personally wrestled with. The biggest takeaway that I’ve come up with so far is that I need to be kind myself.”   

“Looking at gratitude, I ask, how grateful am I, and how do I communicate gratefulness to other people? How does (Eloise) see me being grateful toward her, toward my spouse and toward other people in general?”

One example of parents demonstrating kindness is in the way they take corrective actions with children. It doesn’t do much good to preach being kind to others and then react in an overly harsh manner over a missed “thank you”.

“Something that has been really helpful for my relationship with Eloise and teaching her gratitude is practicing saying ‘thank you,'” Lane said. “When she doesn’t say thank you, we gently correct her and say, ‘What do you think about that?” or “What do you say to this person?” or “How do you think they felt when they gave you this, and what can you say to let them know that you noticed them?'”

As Lane herself has discovered, consistently modeling kindness and gratefulness isn’t always as easy as it sounds. She recommends developing techniques that keep the concepts at the forefront of family life until they become routine.

“I think having rituals in which you say the things that you’re thankful for are really important,” she said. “At the supper table we talk about our days, and talk about what we were most thankful for during that day. That’s been a fun exercise. It’s been a different way to look back and review the day because it’s easy to get lost in work and get lost in the nitty gritty of life.”

Parents should also be mindful that children develop at their own pace and those who are naturally shy may find it more difficult to express their gratitude verbally.

“The challenge for kids that are shy, that don’t talk as much, is helping them develop the tools that they need to help execute gratitude in a public situation,” Lane said. “Maybe that’s doing some role-playing, like, “Let’s get out your animals and talk about how your animals can be thankful,” for instance. Or, for older kids, have a conversation. Say, “Okay, maybe you’re shy, maybe you don’t like to speak publicly–how can you let that person know that you are really thankful for them?”

Gratitude and kindness are something to be practiced daily, but, of course, the holidays shine the brightest light on these concepts. Many families like to volunteer at homeless shelters or other worthwhile places to help reinforce in their children how fortunate they are.

Lane doesn’t discourage such behavior, but cautions parents to have realistic expectations about their child’s ability to process abstract concepts like altruism until at least age 8, when moral development typically starts.

“I definitely don’t think it’s a damaging thing if parents want to take younger kids to serve others. I think that’s an excellent example of giving back,” she said. “Going through their toys or their clothes and giving them to someone else is actually something that I’ve done with my daughter. I don’t know that she equates that with gratitude, but it’s introducing another character quality of being a giving person.”

Lane said something that’s more impactful for younger children might be a daily exercise that she’s introduced in her own household.

“For the month of November, I get a big piece of butcher paper and tape it up in the living room or the dining room, and every day we write down something that we’re thankful for,” she said. “We do that for the entire month of November, something different for every day of the month.”

“To be honest, it gets kind of difficult toward the end, because at the very beginning you’re thinking ‘friends and family,’ you know. But, when you’re getting toward the end of the month, you really have to think about what else you have that maybe other people don’t have.”

by: Dwain Hebda

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