You imagine your well-mannered child saying “please” when they ask if they can use a ball. He says “thank you” whenever anybody gives him a present. His manners are peak and it reflects so well on you.
But what if these words are meaningless when he says them?
What is your goal with having your child say thank you? Do you want him to develop a deep appreciation for the things in the world and deep gratitude for the people who are kind to them, or to say words that you’ve taught him to say?
Think of all the things that honest gratitude takes. What does it take to feel appreciation towards someone for doing you a favor or giving you a gift?
There has to be an other. This rules out very young children.
Then you have to have a theory of mind: the ability to understand that people feel differently than you (age 3) and think differently than you (age 4 or 5). You have to be able to tease out intention. Why did this person get you this thing?
In Should One Return the Favor? researchers found that around the age of 11, children begin to understand returning a favor as a moral value. Age 7-10, children believe you should return a favor to avoid judgment or because it is what everyone does. Before 7, most children don’t understand you are supposed to return a favor at all.
In adult gratitude, there is an expectation of reciprocity. Doing things for each other is what holds us together as communities, and we don’t want our children to be takers. This is part of the reason we feel so attached to them saying “Thank you.” We want them not only to express this in words, but to feel it deep down and reciprocate. To be productive and valued members of their community.
Having token words that we use does not teach a child any of these skills. You can say thank you a million times and not mean it once, and you certainly don’t need to have followed through on any action to pay the person back. So what is the purpose of saying “Thank you”?
I think the answer is to calm the anxiety in the parent and the benefactor. Which isn’t wrong. But it isn’t what our stated intentions are. It isn’t working towards the goal that we say we are.
Will you kids learn to be grateful by themselves, though?
No. This is a skill that can be developed by the parents by fostering the abilities that it actually takes to show gratitude.
This means, of course, modeling. Modeling is always important. Not just when you think children are looking.
But we can do more than that. Modeling doesn’t work for all skills. Dweck’s research on growth mindset has shown this. We sometimes need to actively encourage modes of thinking in our children, as well as avoid inundating them with the wrong kinds of thinking.
On the Your Parenting Mojo podcast—which is exceptional and I cannot rate highly enough; host Jen Lumenlan comes from an RIE perspective and each episode is packed tightly with research about child development and parenting—there was recently a guest, Dr. Jonathon Tudge, who discussed his work on developing gratitude in children and adolescence.
Here were a few of his key points:
Do not say thank you for the thing but instead thank the person. Gratitude is about relationships, not materialism.
Encourage mindfulness: When somebody gives our child a present, ask them how it feels to be given a nice thing that they want.
Encourage empathy: Ask your child to think about why people give them presents, even when they don’t like them. What was the person trying to accomplish?
Encourage recall and reciprocity: Whenever giving a gift to someone, try to help them remember a time that person did a nice thing for them.
Other studies have shown that mothers who talk about internal states help children develop theory of mind, which is necessary for the practice of gratitude.
I highly recommend you listen to that episode here.
Teaching your children to say thank you is fine. It isn’t destructive. In fact, if you are going to do nothing at all or do that, go ahead and teach them to say that.
But there are better tools at your disposal.
Please share this post, because more people need effective tools to teach their children this very important skill.