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The old saying “’Tis far better to give than to receive” takes on a special kind of resonance around the holidays for parents of preschoolers. Giving a gift is a relatively stress-free endeavour compared to waiting, white-knuckled, to see how your kid will react to the presents offered by friends and loved ones. It’s easy for a four-year-old to be ecstatic about a Frozen princess dress, but what happens if he or she rips off that wrapping paper expecting Elsa gear and finds a pair of hand-knit slippers instead? You always need an apology at the ready for your seemingly spoiled kid.
It turns out that it’s possible to teach kids about gratitude at an early age. They begin to develop those thoughtful instincts around three years old, says Kang Lee, a psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto who studies children’s moral development. Remarkably, Lee explains, kids as young as four are able to differentiate between bending the truth for the benefit of others and lies for self-benefit.
“They think both kinds of dishonesty are negative,” Lee says. “However, they know the difference in degrees of badness—white lies are slightly better than lies to conceal one’s transgressions.” And they understand the purpose of fudging the truth to avoid hurting other people’s feelings.
Train them early Gillian Burnett, a mom of two in Richmond, BC, got the thank-you habit started early with her kids. By the time they were about three, she started training her daughter and son to say “Thank you, Mama, for the delicious meal,” whenever they sat down to eat.
“It was a joke to start off with,” she says. “At least if they were going to refuse to eat a meal they would have thanked me for it first.” But there turned out to be some value to a ritual like this.
“Now that they’re school-aged, my kids generally thank people reflexively for making food for them, or for bringing it to them in a restaurant. They don’t just take it for granted.”
Don’t over coach them. It’s a good idea to talk about your expectations around showing gratitude, but you don’t want your preschooler to be too rehearsed, because it can backfire, says Lee. He recounts the story of an acquaintance who once told his kids to say “I love it,” regardless of what they found under the Christmas tree at their grandparents’ house. When his son opened up his gift and it was actually something he wanted, the well-coached kid looked at his dad, confused. “I really, really like this!” he said, in a state of panic. “What do I do?”
Give them cues. Some moms and dads choose to establish subtle cues in advance—a wink, a tug of the ear—to trigger well-mannered responses from kiddos who may be in an excitement-fuelled fugue state. If your child doesn’t pick up on those, you may just have to come out and prompt him verbally. Toronto dad Andre Mayer wishes his daughters responded better to cues as preschoolers, but believes that merely uttering the phrase “thank you”—even if it’s a directive from him—is important for reinforcing the habit down the road.
Explain what “thank you” really means. An even more effective strategy, says Nancy Kosik, an etiquette expert who works with children in Montreal, is to help kids understand the meaning behind expressions of gratitude.
“Explain to your child that to thank someone represents your appreciation for the time spent thinking of you or doing something for you. No matter what the gift is, if you’re coming from that perspective, then your thanking will be genuine, no matter what.”
Did you know? Research suggests merely talking about being considerate of others isn’t nearly as effective as showing kids behaviour they can emulate, says Lee.
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