Children are born entitled. They are surrounded by adults who cater to their every need.
Thats fine when those things really are necessities: food, clothing, diapers and a place to get some sleep. Children grow up, though, and as they age, many come to define needs as an iPhone or a pair of expensive shoes.
So, how can parents teach their sons and daughters to be more grateful and truly appreciate things?
Christine Carter, author of the blog Raising Happiness and the book of the same name (Ballantine Books, $24), and Jeffrey Froh, an associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University in New York, offer these suggestions:
TAKE A FRESH APPROACH TO THE GRATITUDE JOURNAL
A gratitude journal a daily written account of what you appreciate in life is great, but not everyone wants to sit down every day to pen an ode to their blessings.
Carter suggests turning what interests your child into a gratitude project. Keep a jar of Legos, and every time your child expresses gratitude for something, have them add a Lego to a project and enjoy watching it grow. During the holidays, drape ribbon from doorways and keep a basket with note paper and clothespins nearby. When people visit, have them write something theyre grateful for on a sheet of paper and pin it to the garland. Or have your child make pictures or notes about things he is grateful for and display them on the refrigerator.
GIVE THEM A SERVICE PROJECT
Having your child volunteer at a shelter or food pantry or other charitable organization is a good way to expose them to the idea of scarcity without actually depriving them, Carter said.
Sharon Vermont, a pediatrician and mother of two girls in St. Louis, embarked on a gratitude project two years ago after one of her daughters threw a tantrum in an ice cream store.
She told her girls that they would not eat in any restaurants or eat take-out food until they had given a bag of nonperishable food to 30 strangers and heard their life stories. The project took several months, she said, and the girls spoke with firefighters, a single parent with no health insurance whose child had been diagnosed with cancer and survivors of the war in Bosnia, among others.
Its so easy to tell your kids there are starving kids in China, but they dont know what that means, Vermont said. We actually met people who had been starving, from Bosnia and Ethiopia, who explained what its like to be starving. My daughters definitely ask for less than they did before this because I know that they realize now that they have so much.
LET THEM STRUGGLE
As parents, we want to protect our children from challenges and suffering, but Carter says by always fixing problems or shielding them from difficult subjects, we teach them that they are entitled to things.
Let them learn that they can cope on their own, Carter said. Let them know that its not that bad to struggle, that youre not entitled to a life free of struggle.
Dont put your children in danger or deprive them of their basic needs, but dont always parachute in when they have a problem with their homework or forget their gym uniform. Let them figure it out, or go without. They will learn that everyone has bumps in the road and that they have to work to overcome obstacles.
DE-EMPHASIZE THE GIFTS
Wendy Philleo, executive director of the Center for a New American Dream, says she limits her two children, ages 8 and 6, to one gift each from Santa and one from Mom and Dad. She suggests asking your children what they love about the holidays that has nothing to do with getting things.
Tell them thats not what this is about, said Philleo, who lives in Charlottesville, Va. We often find that, more than anything else, what kids want is time with their families. Its great to brainstorm early on about what experiences you want to have as a family. Make sure theyre part of that conversation.
Philleo said she has always given her children two gifts at Christmas. It might be hard to start limiting children who are used to receiving a lot of presents, but you can try to pare down a little each year and have the relatives cut back as well.
Said Froh, You can have your laundry list of ideas, but it doesnt mean Santa is going to bring everything and it doesnt mean Santa should bring everything.
If you emphasize the traditions and togetherness of the holidays, and dont make a big deal about the gifts, Carter said, that will help your child focus on whats important. She points out that when your child grows up, theyre not going to remember what toys they did or didnt get (even if they threw a tantrum about it in the moment). She will, however, remember the traditions and family activities.
START EARLY AND MODEL WHAT YOU WANT THEM TO VALUE
As with everything with children, the earlier you start something, the more likely it is to become a habit.
Very young children can learn to say thank you and count their blessings, but to really understand and feel gratitude, Froh said, they have to be old enough to step outside themselves and grasp the intent of a gift, the cost to the other person, and how it made them feel to receive it. This goes for gifts of time and help in addition to presents.
For example, Froh said, if your child is struggling with math, and her friend misses soccer practice to help her study for a big test, and your child then gets a good grade, it can be a valuable gratitude lesson. They will see that their friend cared enough about them to give up something they really loved, and in turn benefited from the gift of her friends time.
Froh also said that if you show your children that you value nature or relationships with people or traditions more than a new phone or jewelry, instead of just telling them what they should be grateful for, they will get the message.
Its something parents have to pay attention to and cultivate on a daily basis, not just keep a gratitude journal for a week, Froh said. But its well worth the effort.