While the holidays may bring togetherness and celebration, for Kerri Bishop,* they also bring anxiety. “I always worry how my kids will react when they receive gifts,” confides the mom of Nolan, seven, and Julia, five. “No matter how many presents they receive, they still want more, and it drives me crazy!”
Learning appreciation is an evolving, sometimes complicated process for kids (and their parents). As with all developmental traits, the age at which a sense of gratitude appears will vary from child to child, and if yours is on the later side, it may just mean that she’s taking longer to transition out of her egocentric stage of childhood.
Personality also plays a role. “There are kids who have a me orientation — the expectation that other people will do for me, serve for me, get for me, entertain for me,” explains Alyson Schafer, parenting expert and host of The Parenting Show. Despite the best of intentions, some parents foster this attitude by doing too much for their kids.
But take heart: Your child has what it takes to be appreciative and compassionate. “People are hard-wired to care deeply about others,” says parenting educator Barbara Coloroso, author of Kids Are Worth It. “Even an 18-month-old child is compelled to take a blanket to a crying baby to soothe him.”
So how do you build on that and foster appreciation in your kids?
Start with the basics
Most parents work at teaching their kids basic manners — saying thank you and excuse me — and that’s a great place to start in building a foundation of appreciation. Krista Michaels,* of Point Edward, Ont., started teaching these skills to her kids — Leah (now 12) and Christopher (10) — before they could talk. “They knew signing please was how they asked for something. If Grandma and Grandpa brought them something, they might not have been able to use words, but they could sign thank you or give them a kiss and hug.”
Sharing is also a good intro to appreciation. While our tendency is to turn cartwheels when our kids share willingly, Coloroso explains that it’s more important to make kids aware of the impact they’ve had, than to shower them with praise. So instead of saying, “I’m so proud of you for sharing that doll with your sister,” say, “Thank you for sharing that doll. Look how happy your sister is to play with that.” Thank them for sharing a cracker with you. Tell them you were really hungry and now you feel much better. By stroking the deed instead of the child, you’ll help him understand the impact of his actions, she says.
Stand firm on values
What kids are taught about behaviour and consumption becomes increasingly important once kids become aware of all the stuff that’s out in the world, through commercials, shopping and exposure to what other kids have and do.
“My kids come home from school all the time comparing their lunches with what the other kids get,” says Bishop, who lives in Ingersoll, Ont. “They say, ‘Tyler gets to bring Lunchables to school. Why can’t we?’ or ‘Madeline gets a Kool-Aid Jammer every day, and we only get one on special days. It’s not fair!’”
While Bishop knows she can’t really expect the kids to appreciate the effort that goes into making healthy lunches every day, she tries to explain why she’s made that choice. “I tell them that Lunchables are expensive and aren’t as healthy as fresh food, and those things are important. But then I worry they’re going to say something like that to another kid’s mom!”
*Names changed by request.
Coloroso says that Bishop’s response of “that’s up to their parents, but this is what we do here” is spot-on when parents are faced with kids’ concerns about keeping up with the Joneses.
“Always listen first before you interject your thoughts,” Coloroso stresses. “See where they’re coming from. If your son says, ‘They each have their own TV,’ ask what he thinks about that first, then explain that you like having one TV in the family room so you can all share and talk about what you’re watching. They’re not always going to like that; you’re not going to be their best friend. Don’t try. That’s not your job.”
Give them responsibility
It’s hard to appreciate other people’s hard work and effort if you haven’t been on the giving end yourself. “Increasing your children’s contribution moves the interest off of themselves and onto others and the world. It gets them to focus on what they can give and do rather than what they can get,” says Schafer.
And how do you do that? Chores. “When your daughter does the dishes, she’s going to appreciate how helpful it is when people bring their plates to the counter,” says Schafer. But you don’t have to wait until kids are old enough for dish duty — even toddlers can help unload a grocery bag or put napkins on the dinner table.
Combat the gimmes
Bishop recalls going to a store with her kids to buy Nolan a bathing suit for a swim party that afternoon. Although warned that they were only there for the bathing suit, Nolan approached his mom half a dozen times with different toys. “Can I have this?” he asked eagerly again and again. Every request was met with “no.” However, both kids emerged from the store with a chocolate milk and a Pepperette.
“Our kids get-get-get all the time,” says Schafer. “Scholastic books, a Timbit when we go through the drive-through, something from the dollar store. Parents sort of forget because they’re just little things. But the overall landscape of consumerism that we live in says you get a lot of things in general, and when it’s a special occasion like a birthday, you should get a lot more.”
Schafer calls this passive consumerism and suggests that it can be a major factor in children not appreciating what they have because the ante is always being upped. And most parents don’t realize that this almost subconscious string of purchases will have a lasting impact on their children’s expectations.
Coloroso warns that there are other far-reaching implications for kids who are accustomed to effortlessly getting more and more stuff. “These children are losing opportunities to care and share, solve problems collaboratively and simply play together, which is so critical for developing important social skills and a sense of solidarity with one another,” she explains.
The good news: There’s never been an easier time than in today’s environmentally aware culture to discuss the concept of less consumption with your kids. “Use it to your advantage,” urges Coloroso. “Explain that you’ve made a commitment as a family to make a smaller footprint on the earth, why that’s important, and what it means in day-to-day life.” She says that kids love to take up a cause and feel they’re making a difference. After all, what child doesn’t want to save the world?
Teach money management
And while we’re on the topic of consumerism, we can’t escape the role money plays in kids’ ability to be grateful. “Setting limits on our spending helps kids learn to prioritize, and that’s a really important thing when we’re talking about nurturing gratitude,” says author and family consultant Karyn Gordon.
For 12-year-old Leah Michaels, babysitting has been a route to buying some of her wants while her parents stick to their budget on the needs. She’s quickly learned that it takes time to save up for that Aéropostale T-shirt, and that splurging on chocolate bars or magazines pushes her goal further away.
Schafer says that if you want to teach your children appreciation for money and the cost of acquiring things, an allowance is a great way to give them an education in consuming. “Unless they have money training, money is just something that gets spit out of ATM machines.” she says.
She remembers the first Christmas after her kids started getting an allowance, and how they raced to the tree — not for their own gifts, but for the ones they bought their parents with their own money. “They wanted to see the look on our faces when we opened the gifts they bought us because that was them experiencing receiving our appreciation. Having their own money was a critical part of that experience.”
Don’t take it personally
For parents, kids’ most irksome displays of appreciation deficit are often when the parents’ own efforts are not acknowledged. Toronto mom Lisa Buckley* recalls taking her two daughters for a much-anticipated day at the zoo. They did it up with a ride on the Zoomobile and visited all the must-see animals, they enjoyed the splash pad and the new carousel, got an ice cream treat after lunch and even a little memento from the gift shop on the way out. But back home, before the cooler bag was even unpacked, six-year-old Kaitlyn groaned, “I’m bored. There’s nothing to do.” Buckley was instantly angry, thinking, after all that money and effort and the great time they had, this is the thanks I get?
Gordon says that part of teaching kids appreciation is helping them learn to enjoy independent play. “Your child is saying that she was entertained and now she’s not, and she’s unsure how to entertain herself,” she says. “You can help her switch gears by suggesting a few activities to get her creative juices flowing.”
Schafer suggests that parents try not to get upset when their children seem unappreciative (lecturing doesn’t work to change behaviour or belief systems). If you pay attention to the things you want to see more of — perhaps when your daughter, unprompted, says thank you at the gift-store checkout — then you’re doing child guidance and training in the right direction.
Keep it in perspective
Even if it seems you’re not making progress, you may be pleasantly surprised. Schafer suggests that parents gauge how their kids are doing by the generosity and compassion they display out in the world rather than what they show at home, where kids are often not on their best behaviour. “You’ll see them using their manners at birthday parties, or get people saying, ‘Your son is so polite, he did this or said this,’ and then you know he does have it in him. He just chooses not to show it to you.”
An appreciative approach to the holidays
Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with giving your children gifts. But, as the parent, you get to define what celebrating means at your house, and shifting the focus from getting to giving will have a ripple effect.
Set the tone Let your children know that gifts from the heart are priceless. They can make things for people they love, such as handmade necklaces or ornaments or frames reserved for a special photo. Together, you could bake cookies and package them up for neighbours. When the focus is on what they can do and give, the gimmes tend to get lost in the background.
Get festive Spend your time doing things as a family — skating, decorating, playing board games, visiting family and friends — rather than centring the holiday around gifts. The memories will outlast any item on their wish lists.
Downsize your holiday Set a limit on spending and requests. Maybe your kids could just ask for two things this year, forcing them to decide what is truly important to them.
Give of yourself Have your kids choose gifts for a toy drive, or sponsor a family in need. Buy a goat in Africa. “Getting involved with charity, by volunteering or donating, gets children to think outside of themselves. You’re creating that experience instead of just talking about it,” Gordon says.
*Names changed by request.