Gratitude and thanks, Part II: Teaching children about gratitude

(You might want to read Part 1 of this post – the journal entry immediately below this one – before reading Part 2.)

Right now, I want to put all of you on notice. If one day I have children, and you choose to send them presents, they will NOT be required to send you thank-you notes in return.

That does not mean that I will raise them to be ungrateful slobs. And they may well choose to express their thanks, but it will not be because I told them they had to. Allow me to explain…

When I was a little boy, I found that there were people who would come to visit me, give me nice toys for my birthday and Christmas, simply because they liked me. Wow! What wonderful people! How fortunate I was to have people like them in my life!

Then, around age five, I made a mistake. I learned how to write. And then I found that I was required to write thank-you notes to the people who sent me Christmas presents. Suddenly communicating with these friends and relatives was no longer a joy; it had become a bother. And I put it off and put it off. “PAUL…it’s January 26 and you STILL haven’t written Grandpop and Nana to thank them for the toy rocket they sent you for Christmas. I want you to write them TONIGHT.” To which I responded with a sigh and a resolve to get it out of the way as quickly as possible. Christmas presents were never quite as sweet after that. They were no longer spontaneous gestures that said, “Paul, we like you.” They were the source of an obligation that I was required to fulfill.

So, how would I handle it differently? Well, first of all, I’d teach my kids that one of the best things in life – even more rewarding and fulfilling than getting a new toy – is taking advantage of an opportunity to make someone else feel good. That would be the base on which I’d build. If you install the right beliefs, the behaviors should naturally follow, with a little guidance.

So let’s say that little Nipsey’s grandmother (I’ve always thought that if I had a son, I might name him Nipsey) sent him a toy piano for Christmas. What I’d do is encourage him to use it, enjoy it. And as he played, I’d remind him where the piano came from. “Wow, Nipsey, what’s that song you’re playing? It sounds really good! I bet your grandmother would be so proud of you. That’s why she gave you that piano, because she wanted you to have fun with it.”

Then I’d encourage him to find his own reasons to express his gratitude. “Hey, you know what we could do? We could call your grandmother on the telephone and you could play your new song for her. If we held the phone close to the piano she’d be able to hear it. I bet that would make her SO happy! What do you think, do you want to?” And if he said yes – we’d make the call. If he didn’t want to (THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT) I wouldn’t press him, realizing there will be more opportunities in the future to nudge him in the right direction.

Or, alternately: “Hey, Nipsey, you just learned to write in school, didn’t you? Yeah, writing is really good, because it gives you a way to tell people what you’re thinking. Hey, I have an idea! Let’s write your grandmother a letter and tell her about all the songs you’ve been playing on the piano she gave you for Christmas. Want to?” And again, I’d accept his decision either way, although I’d probably be getting out pencil and paper as I asked, to encourage him to want to.

This reminds me one of the most overused, stupid commands I hear parents say to their kids over and over and over again: “Say thank you.” (Or, alternately, “what do you say?”) A nice man gives the kid a cookie. “Say thank you.” And then the kid does what’s expected and says “thank you” and all the adults smile and comment on what a fine young man he’s becoming. But has he really learned what “thank you” means? Or has he simply repeated the rote response that he knows will earn his parents’ approval?

What I propose to do is simply to lead by example. I’ll make a point of saying “thank you” to everyone who does a courtesy to me. Children being curious as they are, hopefully at some point the kid will ask, “Daddy, why do you say ‘thank you’ to people?” If he doesn’t ask, I’ll look for chances to bring it up.

“When someone does something nice for you, it makes them happy if you say ‘thank you’ to them. It lets them know that you appreciate what they did. It makes them feel good. And it’s important to make other people feel good, isn’t it? Here, tell you what, let’s try it out. In a minute, I’ll give you a cookie, and you say ‘thank you.’ You ready? Here you go.”

“Thank you.”

“Now, see? That made me really happy. Now I know that you appreciate the cookie. Hey, you want to play a game?” (Hopefully the kid will say “Yeah!” What kid doesn’t like games?) “I’m going to touch my nose…like…this. See? That’s going to be our secret signal that only you and I know about. Now, the next time someone does something really nice for you, I’ll give you the signal, and then you can say ‘thank you’ and notice how happy it makes them. Sound good?”


“And you know the really awesome thing? After we practice it a few times, you won’t even need me to give the signal anymore. You’ll be saying ‘thank you’ all on your own. And then you’ll be grown up.”

See the difference? The kid will be choosing on his own to say thank you. And he’ll choose to do it out of a sense of joy and expression and fun and connecting with other people. Whereas, most kids are taught to “say thank you” out of a sense of obedience and obligation.

Now, one problem would come up – it will probably take my kids longer to learn to say “thank you” on their own, because they’ll have to find their own reasons to do it – rather than being sternly ordered to. So, for a while, the other parents might think poorly of me because my kids don’t seem to have good manners. And you know what? That’s just too darn bad for them. I’m more interested in my kids’ development than their opinions of me.

And that’s basically it – install the proper beliefs about gratitude and the desired behaviors will follow. Pretty simple, huh? Of course, I don’t have kids. Comments from parents? Would this work?