December 29, 2009

Reader Question: Rearing Gracious, Appreciative Children

Ashley writes:
Good morning, dear Swistle. I have browsed your previous posts but haven't found if you've ever touched on the subject of raising kids who are gracious and appreciative. Have you ever written about that? It's on my mind quite a bit lately, I just blogged about it, but I'm wondering your thoughts. I was raised by Yankee parents with solid New England values. I am trying to do the same. So hard to do in today's society when money and 'things' are available all over the place. The new year is going to bring a more simple lifestyle for my children. Anyway, thoughts? I'd love to hear it from you.

Oh, what a PERFECT topic for right after the holidays! YES, I struggle with this too, so I'll be interested to hear what everyone else does about it. I do a few things:

1. I enforce rote thank-yous. That is, if I give them a cup of milk and they don't say thank you I raise my eyebrows and say "Thank you...?" and they say "Thank you." Too often, unfortunately, I'm working on my mental to-do list and not paying attention to whether they say it or not, so I'm inconsistent with this.

2. I make them write thank-you notes for any gifts they didn't unwrap in front of the giver, and also for gifts received at birthday parties (because in that case the note is at least in part for the benefit of the parent of the child who gave the gift). This is more of a torment for me than for them, but I hope the investment will pay off. Young children (able to draw but unable to write) draw pictures and dictate words (HIGHLY COACHED but leaving funny phrasings intact) to me. Middle-ish children (able to write, but only slowly and with difficulty) draw a picture and write 2-short-sentence letters ("Thank you for the ___" followed by something complimentary about the item) with a signature. Older children (able to write book reports in school) learn the Full Grown-Up Thank-You Letter, which starts with a sentence or two NOT about the gift ("We had a great Christmas. I hope you did too."), THEN thanks the giver for the gift with several supporting sentences about why the gift is so great or how it will be used, then ends with "Thank you again!" and a signature.

3. I talk to them before gift-receiving occasions, laying out for them what's expected (saying thank you, faking it if you don't like it, not saying anything if you already have the item) and practicing it with them. I haven't noticed that this lesson always makes it through in the excitement of the gift-receiving itself, but again I'm hoping it's worth the investment over time.

4. When I talk to them as in #3 about what's expected, and I'm telling them about faking it, I explain WHY we fake it. The reason I give them is that we ARE grateful for the effort and thought and love the person put into it, and I go into so much detail on that I sometimes make myself TEAR UP with imaginary gratitude for an imaginary unwanted gift from an imaginary person.

5. I have them choose gifts for others. For Christmas they choose a present for each person who is giving them one. I usually start this at age 3 or 4, although Henry started at 2 and a half because he feels he must be included in ALL THINGS. We talk extensively about What The Other Person Might Like, and about how gift-buying is about thinking about the other person. I toss in a reminder that this is what OTHER people do for THEM, hoping to inspire empathetic gratitude when they open a gift.

Well, but will this teach actual graciousness, actual gratitude? I don't know yet, but I think it's important to teach them to go through the motions in the hopes that the feelings will follow---and that the explanations of the motions will point out to them where the feelings should be.

I'm eager to hear from other people how they teach their kids, or how they were taught themselves.


Amy --- Just A Titch said...

As a teacher who often gives rewards, silly gifts, food items, etc. to her middle school students with NARY A THANKS, I wish you could teach all children.

Writing thank you notes, and thanking people in general seems to be a dying art.

Marie Green said...

We do mostly what Swistle outlined as far as thanking people for gifts. What I am struggling with is instilling in my children ACTUAL appreciation. They just get SO MUCH stuff, that while they are delighted in the moment, I think they take all of their toys and belongings VERY MUCH for granted. To the point of, if something breaks they think "Oh well. We'll buy another one." or "I'll just ask for a new one for my birthday."

I don't want to raise kids that are unthinking consumers. We, as a family, are not unthinking consumers. However, they have SO MUCH MORE stuff than I ever did as a kid... we as parents have so much more stuff that our parents ever did.

So how do you teach them to appreciate creature comforts? I feel like kids today (mine included) rarely-if ever- want for a single thing. It's immediate gratification, all the time, and when something breaks you toss it and buy new....

Misty said...

What about doing something for less fortunate folks in order to reinforce thankfulness for privilege? This is kind of tricky because no one is looking into inducing guilt... But just doing something nice for someone else. Whether it be mailing a soldier a letter or participating in a can drive and then talking a bit about what it is like to be in a country far away from one's family or maybe not having a full refrigerator at all times...

I think this could go a long way to enforce ideas of thankfulness for what we have that others might not as well as tolerance and appreciation for other people's lives and the struggles they go through.

Party of 5 said...

Love that you read my email and wrote this post about this subject - I knew you'd have great ideas and am anxious to see what other's have to say also.


ellbee said...

My parents enforced rote thank you notes as well. I remember what seemed like endless nights at the dinner table, laborously slogging through note after note (thank you for the book. I will read it!) Another thing I distinctly remember is the strict use of ma'am and sir. We called them Mom and Dad, but if we were asked a question or given a task by ANY adult, we were to say "yes MA'AM/SIR". Neither my brother or I was allowed to call any adult anything but ma'am or sir, and I still find myself anwsering people older than me with a quick "yessir" sometimes. I'm sure that some people don't want the formality of such a form of address, but to me it establishes respect.

Sarah said...

I like all of your ideas and don't really have much to contribute beyond, but I had to say that part about tearing up with imaginary gratitude for imaginary gifts had me laughing out loud. That is SO me, too. I also often get teary and choked up reading children's books about how much their parents love them and that they can always count on them to come back home, etc. I'm going to be the eternally sniffing mother whose children are embarassed of her.
Edit: ha! My word verification was WHINE.

Nowheymama said...

Skimming my reader I thought you wrote "RELATED" question--like, related to the behavior in your comments section the past few days. HA HA HA HA!

Nicole said...

I'm with you on the thank-you's, and also with the please's. I have been known to say to my boys "Even if someone gives you a BARBIE, you say THANK YOU for the BARBIE."

Nowheymama said...

Not that I think what's been going on is at all funny, you understand. Just laughing at my error.

I love your list, and I think it works. I get twitchy if I don't write a thank you note soon after receiving a gift. Thanks, Mom!

Lindsay said...

My mother enforced sporadic thank you and manners lessons and I think they took. I use the same tactics-- trying to teach gratitude and respect on a fairly regular basis but periodically crapping out.

Rah said...

When my children were little, thank-you notes (pretty much following your guidelines) were required. All the relatives used to talk about how nice it was. Now that my kids are young adults, one faithfully writes notes and relatives still think it's amazing. The other doesn't, and that does not escape notice.

Clarabella said...

I have to agree with a previous poster about encouraging charity. I try to donate my time and money and used items as much as I can afford. My mother always had us involved in charity work, whether it be church-related or otherwise. We did everything from taking Christmas dinner to the needy to Toys for Tots to putting together care packages for soldiers overseas (the latter during the Gulf war). It instilled in me a very real realization of how lucky I was to have what I did & how thankful I should be for it.
Even though my son is only 2 1/2, when I packed up his old clothes & toys before Christmas to donate them to Goodwill, I had him help me. I'm hoping some of what I was telling him about why we were doing so sunk in. And continuing to do so will inform him the way it did (and does) me.

Lindsay said...

What I hope to do when I have kids, so as to instill graciousness:
1) My mom always said "we all play or nobody plays." This rule applied to playing in the neighborhood. If any kid, sibling or not, was saying some kid couldn't play with the group, our foursome of siblings were supposed to walk home. Inclusivity = graciousness.
2) My parents reminded us (often) that all honest, legal work was honorable, not just work done by professionals or those highly paid. My dad would remark how impressed he was by the immigrant parents of kids we went to school with, for example, where the parents had left their home country and now worked multiple low paying jobs so that the next generation had great opportunity. He modeled proper interactions with retail/serving staff. Acknowledging all people as equals = graciousness
3) On the material side of things, I see that being a huge battle when I have kids and have no advice. I hope I just have the gumption to just say "no, although we can afford x, we're choosing not to buy it." For reasons like space shortages, but mostly because of the diminishing return on happiness from stuff as we get more and more of it. I don't usually watch momversations but happened to see Mamalogues flat out, unapologetically say she doesn't feel guilt when she denies her kid material possessions and I was all you go girl! and hope to follow her lead.

I love this topic ps.

Sarah said...

If it doesn't teach actual appreciation, it will at least teach good manners.

In general I find that feeling follows form. If they go through the motions of doing and saying the right thing, the feelings will eventually follow. It's good training for marriage, too. ;)

Celeste said...

I read an article by Amy Dacycyzn (Tightwad Gazette author) on how she manages to instill gratitude in her kids. Granted her overall family lifestyle is extreme in frugality, but she has six kids and I do think she is experienced. Anyhow somebody wrote to her and asked how to get the kids to be more grateful for treats, and said simple--reduce the flow so they actually pine for it, and when you do let them have it (at your discretion, NOT theirs), they will be really grateful.

I have been trying to do a little better on the saying no just because I can. With just one child, affording the chocolate beverage of choice (it varies with the season up north!) is not the issue. It's more of a thing about granting every wish. I do think there's something to this line of thinking.

My problem is with DH and his family, who just buy DD too many THINGS. She has too much, and she can't possibly play with all of it. She is bothered by getting rid of it, and I'm pretty close to "storing" some of it in bins in the garage to see if she can lose a taste for some of it. I did that with a bag of stuffed animals that wouldn't fit into her smaller room when we moved, and it worked great. I've got to do the same thing with picture books and early reader books now that she is independently reading chapter books. When you just have one child, there's no reason to hang onto anything outgrown--it just compromises the space you have for incoming things. We never get our money's worth out of anything but gym shoes, socks, and underwear. These are the only things she actually wears out. I may have a little bias towards hanging onto some of her toys for this reason, which is stupid. Wow...a moment of clarity. Thanks for the rehab experience, Swistle!

Enniferjay said...

We played the gratitude game before Christmas(stolen from another blog,) where each family member takes a gift bag, puts a random item from the household into it and then we swap "gifts" and practice looking at the giver in the ey, saying thank you and saying something nice about it.

The first Christas gift my five-year-old opened in front of the neighbor who gave it to him was immediately dismissed with a pout and a "But I wanted a CAMERA!" I guess we need more practice.

Leeann said...

Yes, yes and yes!! We do all of the things that you said in our house as well. Every bit of it! I have been shocked to hear from my girlfriends that several of them have kids who did not give them a single thing for Christmas, not even a card. What my kids give to me for Christmas is not about the gift at all- it can be a poem or whatever- but it is about being a loving, giving person and letting someone know they are loved and appreciated. This year, of their own accord, all three of my kids (14, 11 and 7) earned and saved their money to not only buy a gift for both their dad and I, but for each other as well. We were really happy, also, to see what care they took in trying to choose something the person would really like.


Lisa said...

Amen....I feel so old and uh....old fashioned but I get so IRKED when I don't get any sort of thank you or even ACKNOWLEDGEMENT that a gift was received. Part of me wants to stop giving gifts to people that don't even say "I got your box in the mail" but my husband is always like "you don't give a gift for the purpose of GETTING a thank you." Which is true....but, still. So- Im a bit of a tyrant when it comes to thank you notes with the kids and gah, like you, I hope the investment pays off in the long run because it seems like gratitude is lost on so many people.

Sunny said...

I was raised by parents who taught us that sending a thank you note is good manners and an absolute "must". They followed the age-appropriate levels of thank yous as mentioned above. After a little grumbling, it became habit and I love my Mom and Dad for drilling it into me at a young age. Mom did such a good job that I wrote my wedding thank you notes, nearly 200 of them, on my honeymoon and had them mailed within 2 weeks of our wedding. I figure a few moments putting pen to paper is the least I can do when someone gives me a present or does something thoughtful for me. (I'm an old-fashioned notecard & stamp kinda thank you gal whenever possible.) I don't think of myself as "old", but at 37 I feel like I'm the last of a dying breed of thank you writers and it's nice to know others are out there!

Christina said...

Everything you listed (thank you notes, talks, present picking, etc) was EXACTLY how I was raised. I agree at first it was a bit of a chore and I never understood why I was one of a rare few who ever had to write thank you notes or pretend I liked a gift (I had friends that would blurt "I already have this" or be rude). Eventually, as you said in your last paragraph, though, the actions helped the rest follow suit. I get it NOW and I think that is the end result my parents were looking for.

Kathy said...

We do all that you mentioned, Swistle, and we add to it that the kids must send a thank you note before they are permitted to play with/read/spend the gift. The kids might think I'm mean, but their grandmothers think they are the best grandkids ever!

LoriD said...

I think you have to show them just how fortunate they are to have a loving family, food on the table and a room full of relatives who love to shower them with gifts.

Just before Christmas, each of the kids picked a toy they had outgrown to take to a women's shelter here in town. They found all the pieces to each toy, cleaned it, then packaged it up so that all the parts would stay together. We talked about what the women's shelter was for and the fact that the children who were there had left all their toys and clothes behind to get away from a bad situation. Of course, the older the child, the better the comprehension, but they all got the point.

They got a ton of gifts for Christmas, as usual, and they met our expectations with respect to their manners and expressing their appreciation to the gift-giver. What really warmed my heart was when my oldest thanked us for all the work we put into making Christmas nice and my middle child acknowledged that he was really lucky to have all these new toys. I'm still getting periodic questions about the children in the women's shelter which tells me they were listening and they're still thinking about it.

Mairzy said...

We worked on the Thank You For the Gift part this year. I got the idea from Family Fun: give pretend gifts to each other and practice saying thank you. I told them to "Thank, Look, Say": Thank the person, Look at the gift, and Say something about it. It worked surprisingly well with my 8 and 7 yos, and even the 3 yo got the idea.

I was anxious that they learn to say something about the gift even when they were disappointed -- without fibbing, "Wow, I love it!" if that wasn't true.

Since my husband makes a point to thank me for almost everything I do for him, especially cooking supper, I've realized how very necessary it is for the children to express gratitude as well. So we do the rote Thank Yous as well.

We're still working on the Thank You note concept, I'm afraid... mostly because *I* am lax in that area.

Actual gratitude is something a person has to discover himself, I think; but already having the motions in place helps bring it to light. Very good suggestions of yours.

Joanne said...

My mom and dad (well, mostly my mom) always had us write thank you notes, and I still do today, much to the chagrin of my in-laws, who are always like "WHY does JOANNE send me MAIL for the present I just gave her?". They think I am putting on airs or something.
My oldest doesn't really talk too much so I am working with my two year old on saying please and thank you and I have been having a lot of fun with it. "Thank you very MUCH!", she'll say, as she takes the nuk out of the baby's mouth.
As for gratitude, I think it's more complicated. We only give our kids one gift per holiday, which has been met with some confusion by our family and friends. I just - I don't see how my kids need more than one gift for Christmas or whatever. Who are they, Christina Crawford? :) I haven't yet, but I am going to have to talk to my MIL about the sheer volume of Christmas gifts that she gives my kids. We just can't do it, there's no way they can open all the gifts they get and appreciate them.
It's hard because by nature I am lazy but I try and do like you say, Swistle, and just talk about thank yous and gratitude whenever it comes up. Since I do almost every damned thing these kids say, there are plenty of opportunities to thank me! Ha!

Farrell said...

All v. good.
#1: my step-dad would take away the item if I did not say "thank you". i.e. he brings me juice and I do not say thank you; his hands remain on the juice until I do; if i don't, he picks it up; then child realizes "oh." V. effective
#2: My mom is a stickler for thank-you notes and at Sophie's last bday party (year 5) I made her sign her own name. This is an old-fashioned tradition that should never be given up. I have to say that out of the four birthday parties we attended in October for classmates, we received exactly ONE thank-you note. V. disappointing.
#3-4: I do the same
#5: Every year, my company "adopts" a needy family and I take Sophie with me to shop for one of the family members, and explain why we are doing it, etc.

Alias Mother said...

Your suggestions are right on for teaching manners and I agree with a lot of the comments for teaching appreciation. Kids don't need everything they want, period. If you want to pass on your values of thrift, fewer possessions, environmental responsibility or whatever, you explain that you don't buy X because it doesn't fit how your family lives. I remember being a kid at the height of the Cabbage Patch frenzy. When we asked why we didn't get dolls, my mother said, "Because they were too expensive and the lines were too long. Having a certain kind of toy isn't that important." That lesson totally stuck with me, and I'm still not one to get hung up on stuff.

I love the suggestions to have kids help box up items for charity, but also encourage/require them to save some of their allowance to give away. There are divided piggy banks with sections for Save/Spend/Charity that can help. Also, take them with you to volunteer! I know lots of parents who bring their kids along on community clean-up days or to help cook/serve at a soup kitchen. It's great to teach about charity in the abstract, but I think it's equally important to teach that those who need help aren't Others, but people just like you and me.

js said...

I love this. My parents tried to teach us good manners. For the most part they did a good job. As my brother grew up, he lost quite a bit of them, but that's another story. My sister and I still write thank you notes to everyone and I make my daughter do it as well. And with #3, this is something I have to pound in to her brain over and over and over. But this Christmas still found me cringing when she said, "Oh, I already have this!" Luckily she followed it up with "But now when J comes over to play, we can BOTH use one." I still was cringing though. And she actually said to me, Christmas morning, "But this wasn't even on my list. I didn't want it, why did I get it." REALLY?!

Swistle, I know your comment section got out of control a few days ago, and I'm sorry. For what it's worth, I have enjoyed reading you over the years and have always thought (from what I've read), that you were an amazing mom & woman. This furthers my opinion of that.

Erin said...

I have to say that the gifts I've received that I don't like or want have always been the ones to reduce me to tears of gratitude. I mean, they just tried so hard! Of course my emotional displays probably only reinforce bad gift giving, which is unfortunate.

Boys Live Here! said...

My kids are all under 6 but we're starting with the thank you notes training. I completely agree with all you wrote, Swistle! I do believe that at young ages they may not have the true appreciation just yet but the combination of manners training and the fact that YOU as a parent are displaying how much you VALUE being gracious and appreciative is what will lead to the same values becoming ingrained in them in later years.

Also, I really like the idea of making them wait to play with the gift until they've written the thank-you note! This would help me as much as them, since I tend to procrastinate on doing the notes (high level of parental help means it can be tedious, though important).

Right now I'm working on the issue of a 6 year old obsessed with spending allowance on tokens for stupid games at arcade places so he can come home with $2.00 worth of junk and candy... for the price of about $10 of his allowance. Halp!

oatsnboats said...

I highly agree with the enforced thank you card writing. When it came time to write thank you notes for our wedding, I discovered my husband actually did not know how to write them - I actually had to write out a template for him - much as you would help a 6 year old (that was the level he was at, not the more advanced stage). I was amazed that he had never learned this skill. In this world of instant gratification, I think it's so important that kids are taught to sit down and say/write thank you for something that happened earlier in time, if nothing else to make them remember the exchange.

Magpie said...

I enforce thank you notes at every turn, too.

Alicia @ bethsix said...

We do thank yous, and we have lots of conversations about people who are less fortunate. (We live in an urban area and regularly see homeless people to whom we give change when we can.) There is a boy at the school of my two oldest who is in need of a kidney transplant. The school was collecting change in all classrooms recently, so we used this as an opportunity to talk too. After a couple conversations - not prodding them to give their giant jar of change but suggesting that they COULD - they walked it into school themselves. That was really nice to see, as it really was driven by them, you know?

We also live in a house that most would consider too "small" for our family (two proper bedrooms for six people, although we have an open loft and study also). We just can't keep a lot of STUFF. I regularly go through the kids' toys and cull stuff down for Goodwill. The kids are less involved in this process now, but I hope to involve them more as they get older.

I am a constant purger of stuff, so it's difficult for me to live with a husband and kids who aren't. I would be ecstatic to give away almost all of my possessions and go live in a hut in a forest somewhere. We don't buy a lot we don't need either - most of the kids' toys, etc. come from birthday and holiday gifts. I hope this instills in them some appreciation for the important (non-) things and living a simple life over accumulation and consumerism.