Diane Nelson has two young boys (almost 4.5 and 2 years old) and supports the GetSet Toolkit program. She loves hearing advice and perspectives on raising responsible, kind, and confident children.

“I sure would like to have that.” This is a quote I frequently hear from the mouth of my 4-year-old son. He says it in a kind tone of voice and my response is usually “That is a pretty cool … what is about it that you like?” Oftentimes his response is because “the wanted thing” is something new and different. I try to give him space to talk about it, grapple with my response of “No, we can’t take that home because (mommy doesn’t have the money, it’s not for sale, it belongs to your friend, etc), empathize with feelings of sadness and frustration, and then, hopefully, we can have a graceful exit out of the situation. He typically moves on and that is the end of it (unless he’s hungry or tired and then there’s some extra empathy and incentives to encourage graceful exiting).

What he doesn’t hear is my inner monologue: “Don’t worry, he’s acting his age, this is part of development. He will learn gratitude and appreciate what he has versus wanting more and more as he gets older. But, what should I be doing now so that does happen? Am I doing/saying the right things? If I used different words and emphasize appreciating what he has, would it go over better? How can I help him understand that showing gratitude and appreciating what he has is good for his mental well-being? I guess its good he doesn’t throw a tantrum and obsess about it, so I’m maybe doing something right.” And on my thoughts go, second guessing with a bit of worry, but then distracted by the next thing my kids do that requires my attention.

But really, how do we cultivate gratitude and appreciation in our young children when it’s not the most natural reaction for them? We know they are marketed to on their screens and devices with cool new toys and games and we, their caregivers, do not have the resources to grant their every desire. I’ll share a few approaches I am trying out with my little guy and am finding they do help to spur the conversation toward gratitude.

• In the rare moments we are in a store together or maybe see an ad online, I will say to him: “Mommy sure would like to have that …., because it is so …. , but I know it is not something I need to live or will make me happier.” I’m hoping the “but it is not something I need to live or will make my life happier” will stick in his brain and eventually, he’ll be prompted to say and understand needs vs. wants for himself.
• During our bedtime routine, we review the days events and I ask him what moments he felt happy or what good things happened today. We talk about being thankful for those times. I try to emphasize relationships and connections he’s made with others. I’m hopeful this will become a routine throughout his life…to take stock of the good in the day and maybe, in the future, see the good coming out of harder days as well.
• I tell him thank you as often as I can for work he’s done and tell him I appreciate his help. This can be hard when I’ve asked him to do something several (or what feels like 100) times, but in the end, I am thankful he did what I asked, was kind, thoughtful, loving, etc. I hope he will model the level of gratitude and appreciation I show him.
• I praise him when he says thank you and/or shows appreciation. If he’s thanking me, I also tell him how happy and loved I feel when he specifically appreciates things I do for him. I tell him I’m thankful to be his mom. I also try not to give too much audience to the moments when he’s being ungrateful or unappreciative. I’ve been coached to praise the behavior you want to see more of 😊.

As we approach this season of gratitude and also gift giving and receiving, if you’re looking for more information or activities for cultivating gratitude and appreciation with your kids, check out this article from the Greater Good Science Center Magazine. Here is also a fun activity to do with your kids from Sesame Street in Communities. Happy Thanksgiving!