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I stopped forcing my kids to say thank you, and they learned true gratitude

Are they just saying a rote thank you, or do they mean it? (iStock)

Imagine that you and I are chatting in the foyer of your home with our kids nearby, continuing to goof off together at the conclusion of this playdate. Our conversation dwindles to a natural end, and it’s time for my child and me to leave. I thank you for hosting; you reply with something pleasant. As my child puts on shoes, I anticipate what should follow. Any second now. One element is needed to complete this scene.  Gazing intently at my offspring, I will not yet reach for your doorknob. You just said something, but I wasn’t listening. I am preoccupied, telepathically willing my child to thank you for the playdate, hoping I don’t need to verbalize the cue.

It seems we all experience moments when our child owes someone thanks, but needs to be prompted. Typically, we prompt with an expectant look paired with a trusty “What do you say?”

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For a long time, whether I was the one uttering this line to my kids or the receiver of a child’s resulting thank-you, the routine felt off. It wasn’t just that most kids, including my own, sounded insincere in their thanks. The exchange felt somehow misguided.  Mechanical. Lacking.

After the marbles circled the tracks of my brain for a while, I arrived at the problem: We’re coaching our kids to say thank you as merely a habit, akin to brushing teeth or clearing their dishes from the table, a behavior to be practiced at certain times.

But saying thank you should involve more. Before our kids express appreciation, they should experience appreciation. The thank-you’s will always sound empty if they’re not weighted with gratitude. To that end, I, and it seems other parents, had been applying the wrong sort of effort: We were nudging our children to say words of thanks, but we weren’t nurturing feelings of thankfulness. It’s like sprinkling just the leaves of a plant when what’s needed is to water the roots.

This epiphany caused me to change course with my daughter and son. Expunging “What do you say?” from my parenting script years ago, I launched a new habit in situations when someone deserves thanks: I illuminate for my children what has just transpired. For example, I’ll say, “Dad spent time fixing your toy instead of relaxing” or “The librarian left the work at her desk to help you find that book.” Instead of cuing words to be spoken, I’m aiming to trigger something deeper and more meaningful — awareness.

To adults, these explanations amount to stating the obvious, but they are revelations to kids who take everything for granted, naturally, because everything is granted to them. Allowing my children a moment to process what they’ve just heard, to register that they’re the recipients of kindness, I follow with, “How does that make you feel?”  My intention is to guide them from recognizing kindness to valuing it.

When they were younger, my kids usually responded to the question with a simple, if perfunctory, “Good.” From this humble seed, I tried to foster their appreciation. I’d suggest that they were lucky to have received that sticker from the pediatrician. Not every kid had just enjoyed a chocolate-chip-pancake breakfast at a restaurant with their grandpa. Whatever the circumstance, I’d point out that they had experienced special treatment, which was indeed something to feel good about — and thankful for. Then I encouraged them to share their thankfulness with the person who deserved to hear it.

While my children have matured, they still occasionally require a parental light to help see when someone’s been kind to them. The approach I use with my kids now is streamlined. I pose a question designed to rouse both their awareness and appreciation. I’ll say, “Was it nice being invited here to spend the evening?” or “Are you glad I agreed to take you to the mall?” It works: One question sparks a realization and a thank-you.

I can’t vouch for what’s developing beneath the surface in my children’s conscience, but my hope is that they will develop into adults who don’t take others for granted, who always appreciate and thank the friend who drives out of the way to pick them up or the stranger who waits an extra second to hold a door.

In my ideal vision of their future, both my daughter and son will habitually recognize and value the good they have in their lives. If that indeed happens, I will feel fortunate, proud and grateful.

Larissa Kosmos is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Facebook at Larissa Kosmos, Writer.

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