I am the parent of a five year old and a two year old. We are a very fortunate middle class family. My children get what they need and more. I am worried that they will end up being entitled and ungrateful. I’m already feeling like my five-year-old expects gifts for no reason and doesn’t play with half the things she has! I feel fortunate to have the life we do. How do I make my children understand how lucky we are?
You are facing a common dilemma for parents in today’s society. There are many challenges to overcome to teach gratitude! The marketing of material goods toward children is pretty out of control. Parents often feel pressure to give their child things lest the child feel left out or different. In public, parents might feel their parenting is being judged if they refuse a child’s desire and the child breaks down. Additionally, we live in a world of comparison and instant gratification! Through social media, parents are connected, posting about wonderful things in their lives and constantly comparing our lives to others whether consciously or not. Children (and adults) get their desires met quickly by technology. All of these factors combined lead to our children having a lot of material possessions and getting needs met very quickly.
Those are just the environmental factors! You also have child development to contend with when teaching gratitude. Preschool age children are egocentric. They do not understand how to take another perspective. This means that we can preach to them about other children not being as fortunate as they are, but they cannot understand what they aren’t living. Developmentally, five-year-olds are at the very beginning of pro social behavior. They are novices at understanding that others have emotions or lives that differ from their own.
All that being said, don’t give up! It is never too early to instill a perspective of gratitude. There are several steps we can take to start to get the concepts through.
Bear in mind that it’s okay to say no! As long as your child’s needs are being met they will be okay without the latest gadget or toy. It is a good time to teach the difference between “needs” and “wants” (a concept that many adults struggle with). Things that ensure health and wellness are needs; food, water, shelter, clothing, etc. Everything else is a want; things that would be nice to have, but don’t help us survive. Delay gratification of “want” items for special treats or occasions. This will help children to value items more and really think about what they want if they know something new isn’t coming each time they ask for it!
Get your friends and family on board. It can be difficult to delay gratification for your children when they have a well-intentioned, very generous aunt or grandma! Let the people in your child’s life know what values you are hoping to instill and ask for their support. Also, if a family member does “spoil” your child, get into the habit of writing thank you notes with your child. Saying thank you can be superficial for a child of this age. They might say the words without the appreciation or meaning behind them. However, going through the motions of writing a thank you note for gifts and asking the child to say why they liked the gift can help bring attention to the gift giving being special.
Do gratitude exercises! Around Thanksgiving of last year, my daughter and I both completed an alphabet “Thankful List”. We each made a list of things A-Z that we were thankful for. This is a great exercise to complete any time of year. You can also start a “Gratitude Box” in your house. Once a week or even every day, write down something that you are thankful for and put the note into a decorative box or bin! After a year or at the end of each month you can go through it as a family and remember all of the things that make you fortunate! These practices will also give you some opportunities to model the gratitude perspective for your child.
It can be frustrating to feel like your child does not appreciate the life that you have. Know that the values and views that you teach your child from a young age will become more apparent as he/she grows and will stay with him/her through adulthood!