By Mary Teresa Bitti
Every Thursday evening, Maria Viviana Urso volunteers at her church in Montreal. She works in the administrative office and helps distribute food through its food bank. She sees firsthand the struggles many families face and is very thankful for all that she and her family have. It is a value she wants to impart to her daughter, six-year-old Melina.
“We are very fortunate and I want her to understand that not everyone is as fortunate as we are and that we should be grateful for all that we have in our lives,” says Urso. Happily, the message appears to be getting through. “Melina loves to say grace before meals. It’s rare when she doesn’t give thanks for the food we have.”
Being thankful can be a tough lesson for kids who, by age six, have long been advertising campaign targets and who are living in a time of more, more, more. “In this kind of environment, it’s easy for many kids to always expect the next thing and not appreciate everything they do have,” says Dr. Oren Amitay, a registered psychologist and father of three daughters ages three weeks to 12 years. “It’s our job as parents to teach them to be thankful.”
The fact is, gratitude is a virtue that is learned and that’s something some parents have forgotten, says Dr. Amitay. “Our parents’ generation, at least here in North America, made sure they taught their kids to say thank you,” he says. “I often see parents asking their children to say thank you, but shrugging their shoulders when that child doesn’t do it. There’s no follow-up. Take the extra 30 seconds of interaction to make sure you are modelling, teaching and following up on these simple, courteous behaviours.” So how do you raise a grateful child?
Set an example
“We say thank you to our girls all the time and we praise them all the time,” says Dr. Amitay. “They also see us thanking others.” Volunteering is also a great way to give back and say thanks, says Maggie Leithead, president of charityvillage.com. “If you are a member of the local Rotary Club, then encourage your child to become involved in their junior programs. Volunteer at your child’s school and have them lend a hand, too.”
Make saying “thank you” a habit, even for the little things
“Whether it’s a popsicle or a digital camera, I want my kids to be thankful in the same amount for all they receive,” says Tracey Ostapchuk in Oakville, Ont. “My twins [age six] got their hair cut recently and they thanked the hairdresser. If we buy something at a store, they thank the clerk. These people did something for you and that should be recognized.”
Build giving into everyday life
Jo Langham’s son, Alexei, 8, has had an allowance since age five. “That’s enabled me to have regular chats with him about saving, spending and giving,” says the Toronto mom. “He saves $2, spends $2, and gives $2 to charity. Younger kids are so used to instant gratification, but as he’s gotten older he’s had to save up for some of the things he wants. If a new truck costs $20, he knows that’s 10 weekends’ worth of allowance.” In addition to donating money to charity, mother and son regularly go through the toys and clothes he has outgrown to donate to a local women’s shelter. “I use this opportunity to talk to him about all the kids who don’t have as much as he does.”
Write a thank you letter
“We have our daughters write thank you notes for birthday presents with a personalized message,” says Dr. Amitay. “They are specific about what the gift means to them.” This is spot on, says Lisa Rosano, president and founder of Charmed Integrity School in Oakville, Ont. “Thank you notes are a direct path to positive character development and appreciation. Sit down with your child and ask them why they are thankful. Ask them to share how the gift or action made them feel,” says Rosano. “This requires them to really think about what the gift means to them, and in this way they can truly be grateful.”