Gifts & Gratitude: Helping Kids Appreciate The Holiday Season

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Oh the holidays. The family, the food, the fun, the presents -soon followed by a fear that we are raising entitled children with no appreciation for what they have. Tis the season for showering children with special activities and a mountain of presents, then wondering why they have a meltdown when we say no more. Which makes about as much sense as taking them trick or treating and then wondering why they want to eat the candy.

So how do we help our children recognize what they have in a season of abundance? We can start by getting clear on what gratitude is and is not.

Understand The Meaning Of Gratitude

When parents think of grateful kids, most think of children who say please and thank you with ease. Thus starts a constant refrain of “say thank you”. Does saying a phrase make someone grateful? Nope. Does it help the recipient feel appreciated when a child says it because the parent asked them to? Not likely. Why not? Because gratitude is a feeling, and saying “thank you” is just one way we can communicate that feeling to others.

What we can do is help our children recognize the feeling when they experience it. And while our instinct is to drill it in as gift after gift is put in front of them, we need to accept that core values are not taught in a day. As a matter of fact, the days we shower kids with a ton of gifts are likely the ones that are hardest for kids to get in touch with gratitude.

Gratitude takes years to develop. We come into this world cared for and expecting our basic needs to be met. Of course we feel entitled, it’s all we know. Slowly over the years, our experiences can give us a window into the lives of others, and that's when we start to realize the fortune we may have. We can help this process by providing experiences that evoke feelings of gratitude throughout the season and all year long. Here are five ways to do just that:

Involve Kids In Gift Giving

Whether it’s the holidays or birthdays, often children are not even involved in the gift giving process. I get it. Life is busy and we can’t do it all. Our modern busy lives have gotten in the way of what giving is all about. Remember the anticipation of watching your friend open the present you picked out or made for them? We couldn't wait to see if they liked it. That warm feeling we get from doing for others is a piece of the gratitude puzzle. It is what cues us as to how someone else might feel when they give us something. That’s how we learn to appreciate their gesture.

We can involve kids by having them make gifts and cards. We can also bring them shopping with us. My aunt used to give my cousins a few dollars to pick out presents for us at a drugstore. I think those key rings and air fresheners were the only gifts I can remember from those years. And by all means, try to have the kids present when giving gifts. Take them with you to the post office to mail them, take them along to drop off cookies at a neighbor’s house. Be sure to share any thank you notes you receive with your children too. While all of these may take more time for us, if we really want to increase their sense of gratitude, we have to include them along the way.

Plan Ahead For Receiving Gifts

It is fun to shop for our kids, but remember that other family members are shopping too. After a few presents, many kids get gift fatigue and lose interest in opening more. One or two thoughtful gifts will be received with greater appreciation than ten. Help other family members understand this as well.

Our family is working hard to move toward experience gifts. I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember what my parents gave me in childhood. I can remember many fun experiences I had with them. No matter how many things we give our kids, what really matters and sticks with them is the time spent together. Experience gifts don’t need to be expensive either. They can be as simple as letting the kids pick the activities for the day, including what the family eats for meals. Or a picnic and hike at a favorite family spot. The beauty of these gifts is that they provide something more important than physical items- they build connection.

When it comes to preparing our kids for receiving gifts, instead of worrying about them saying the words thank you, help them connect with how they feel inside. This is where you can draw on those experiences of giving. Ask, “how did it feel when we took cookies to all the neighbors?” Let them know how it felt to you. Asking where they felt it in their body can help too as it creates a connection between the feeling words and the sensations those evoke in the body.

If thank you notes are a must in your home, think about how you can help your child make them authentic. One of the ways we can do this is by giving some choice in how they express their gratitude. Draw on what they enjoy. Got a comedian? Have her come up with a knock knock joke about the gift. Broadway bound? Make up a thank you song, record a video and email it. Artist? They can draw a picture of them with the new gift. Ask them how they want to express their gratitude for what they have received and you will likely see a much more genuine and thoughtful thank you to share with the giver.

Open Their Eyes

It’s hard to appreciate what you have when it is all you have ever known. We need to help our children build awareness of the community and world around them. Telling them there are starving children with no toys is not going to do it. They need to see it and feel it through experiences out in the world. Family volunteering is a great way to do this. Many parents may volunteer on their own time, and many schools include service learning during the day. Doing it as a family and sharing the experience together is what will really create the lifelong value of appreciating what we have and giving back what we can.

We can also use the holiday gift season as a time to help kids reflect on what they have and what they may no longer need so that others can share in the joy of those toys. Some families have a toy in, toy out rule. Each time you get a new toy, it’s time to look at what you can donate to those who have less. Again, the value of doing this will be significantly greater if they are involved in deciding where the donation will go and taking it there with you.

Keep in mind that our children learn so much more from the small moments of observing us than from our words. Pay attention to how you respond to the vulnerability you see in the world around you. Do you acknowledge the homeless individual standing next to you while waiting to get on the freeway? Do you look up when someone asks you for money of the street? The subtle messages we send in these small moments are not lost on our kids. What you can do is draw your child in by making observations or asking questions to ponder. “I wonder if she has a safe place to sleep tonight.” Or “I feel so fortunate we have food to eat, so many don’t have a place to get a warm meal.”

Express Gratitude In Front Of Them And To Them

I have to admit, I can’t help but scream a little inside when I hear parents demand a child say thank you. I know why we do it, because the urge comes over me as well. We don’t want someone to think our child is ungrateful, because deep down we fear they will think that we are ungrateful. Yet we know forcing the word has nothing to do with a child or adult feeling gratitude.

Instead of insisting your child uttering the phrase on demand, say thank you yourself every single time we want them to say it. Trust they will develop this skill themselves after seeing you do it over and over again. And, yes, there are some times and places where we just can’t silence our inner Ms. Manners. If you know Aunt Edna is a stickler for a thank you from your child, talk about it ahead of time and let your child know it’s really important to this particular person. Come up with a hand sign together that you can use if a gentle reminder is needed.

The biggest thing we can do to raise kids who experience and express gratitude is to express genuine gratitude to them every chance we can. This is not about praise. Instead, start a statement with “I notice” or “I appreciate.” The warm fuzzy feeling they get when you do will help them appreciate that feeling and want others to experience it as well. Added bonus: where we give attention is what we will see more of. If you focus on what’s going well, you are likely to see more of it.

Use All Year To Teach Gratitude, Not Just The Holidays

When entitlement catches our attention during the holidays, my guess is that our frustration may have more to do with our own emotions than the healthy development of our children. Parents work hard to afford the added expenses and may spend a great deal of time shopping, wrapping and planning a festive holiday season. When our kids seem less appreciative with each present they open, it rubs up against our own need to feel valued and appreciated for our work. That’s absolutely fine, but you may get more support by talking through those feelings with your partner than lecturing the kids in that moment.

We may have guilt around our contribution to the problem; we may feel angry that the kids don’t get how lucky they are. Those feelings are okay too, but there’s nothing you can do in that one day or week to force gratitude into them. It’s going to take time and commitment to develop this skill. So take a deep breath, let it go for today, and think about how you can support their growth in this area all year long.

Desperate to get started right away? How about a daily gratitude moment where each person shares a few things they are grateful for each day. Be warned, during the first months of this your child may be grateful for Legos. That’s okay! Avoid the urge to prod for more. With practice and modeling from you, they will dig deeper over time.

Parenting is hard and there’s no shortage of pressure on us to make sure our kids are prepared for adult life. What I know is that our energy is much better focused on modeling the values that we want our children to have. Show them every single day what gratitude looks like. Share with them what it feels like. Trust that with your patience, love and belief in your child, gratitude will blossom as they grow.