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Ask a Therapist: How Do I Teach My Child to Be Grateful?

Family, Parenting, Ask a Therapist
5 min read

Dear Therapist, My husband added an extra treat for our toddler: a piece of cookie with his turkey sandwich. He shoved aside the sandwich and ate the cookie up in record speed. Once his hands were empty, though, he cried for more. “It’s all gone,” we explained. But nothing seemed to register. He wasn’t thrilled at having eaten a favorite snack—instead, he showed little thanks once it was gone. This wasn’t the first time he seemed ungrateful. I had offered to show him a favorite movie, but it ended with him crying for more, rather than showing gratefulness for having seen it. Do you think he’s being an ungrateful child?

Frame therapist Analee Phang weighs in...

Let's start with the fact that we have all been in the situation where we wanted another cookie (or another thing that brightened our mood). There is no such thing as an ungrateful child, just a child that hasn't learned how to be grateful. If this was an 18 year old, I'd be a little more concerned. However a young child is still learning how to practice gratitude throughout their day, and will continue to learn how to practice gratitude throughout their lifetime.

It's hard as a parent to see a pattern of behavior from our child that we know won't serve them in the long run. We have to be understanding though that we too had to take the time to learn all the things that as an adult seem so obvious. We have to recognize that even something as simple as gratitude is learned over an extended period of time. A behavior is not who our child is. It is just an opportunity to teach a new skill.

It will be important for you to try to take the time in those moments of frustration to validate the child's emotions with a simple, "I understand you want another cookie. I'm sad too when the cookies are finished." Follow this up with a display of how you handle sadness and practice with your child. Maybe it's taking a long, deep breath or taking some time to sit quietly in your room. You want them to feel heard and understood in that moment.

Explanations are not always as valuable as examples for small kids. Setting an example of how to practice gratitude can be a great way to curb this unwanted behavior. Try emulating the behavior you desire by making an example of yourself. Practicing gratitude as a family could look like a lot of things.

  • If it's dessert night at home, make a show of how much you are looking forward to it. Explain that when everyone is done with dinner they can have a small piece of dessert. Serve everyone at the same time, and express your gratitude for the treat after everyone is done. It may be helpful to point out that everyone got one piece and no one is getting any extra.
  • Ask your child at the beginning of the day (or week) to choose between two treats they can receive after a certain amount of time. Maybe it's, "On Friday, would you like to watch your favorite movie or go to the playground?" This allows the child to feel they have more control over their treat, and it gives them something to look forward to. This also helps them practice delayed gratification. You can remind them of their choice and as they get older make the treat contingent on completing a task or chore. Just make sure it is something you can follow through on after they have kept up their end of the deal. 😉
  • You could also use meal time to express gratitude for your day. Ask everyone at the table what their favorite part of the day was or to share one thing they were grateful for. This daily practice can help showcase the various things we have to be thankful for and sets a great example of highlighting the positives in our day-to-day lives. Bonus points if you can share something your little one did that you are grateful for!

Know that teaching gratitude is a marathon, not a sprint. Kids will do what they see more often than what they are told. Creating an environment that displays gratitude and thankfulness is the best tool for seeing our children grow into kind and appreciative adults. And remember that you're  a good parent no matter if you give the second cookie or not.



About the therapist: Analee Phang is a California based LMFT, who works with multiracial identifying women on building understanding of their identities and relationships. Click here to view Analee's therapist profile and learn more about her approach and style.

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