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The Key to Raising Grateful Children is Context

14 Mar 2014 – 10:33 AM EDT

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I sometimes wonder if grateful children are born, not made. In my daughter’s early years, she would receive dozens of presents at Christmas and her birthday. When her mother and I split-up, the amount doubled. Yet, unlike me, when she would see that pile of gifts, she wouldn’t dive in with a greedy zeal, but carefully open her presents and admire each individual gift. In fact, because we are often racing against time because her mother and I share holidays, I would often have to rush her through the opening of her presents. When it comes to asking her what gifts she wants, she is never greedy, often only asking for one or two things. If she has to wait for the thing she wants, she never minds. Sometimes we raise grateful children, in spite of our actions as parents.

At the holidays and for birthdays, it has become common practice for parents to shower their children in gifts. It’s well-intentioned. We want to give them everything cool we can. I am guilty of this, too. My daughter has remained a genuinely grateful person, even as she’s aged. When she got her iPhone (it was free, give me a break) she was awestruck and, for a time, had the most advanced piece of technology in her maternal home. Even though she knew it cost nothing, she told me we could skip the next Christmas and birthday if we wanted to.

It all boils down to expectations, both yours and your children’s. For parents whose children seem ungrateful, it isn’t a genetic defect or mental affliction, but simply the casualty of a great life. Your children have come to expect everything from you and lack the necessary perspective to realize how lucky they are to get one high-end video game system and not all of them.

The trick is to provide that context for your child. People love to laugh at elderly relations’ tales of the difficult old days, but they play a role. While it may not be killing bears with notebooks, those stories add a context for children that everything isn’t always handed to you. Even if you grew up relatively well-off, descriptions of rotary phones or only five TV stations are enough to set a child wondering how we survived.

Also, our children mirror our own attitudes. If your child behaves in a petulant or “spoiled” way, rather than looking at them, we should maybe turn the focus inward. The greatest challenge of parenting is how to prevent our own flaws from becoming our children’s bad habits.

Along with the instinct to spoil, we like to protect our children from the troubling realities of the world. By trusting them with that kind of information, children are more able to understand their own situation and that of their friends. Kids are remarkably sensitive, more so than we often give them credit for.