Our children are being raised in a techno-savvy world of instant gratification and convenience. The opportunities for them to practice polite manners are less often than in times past. But learning to show respect by asking for what we want politely, and expressing thanks when it is given, is a necessary part of preparing our children to enter society. Here are several ways to teach young children how to express thanks:
Realize that giving thanks must be voluntary
This sounds contradictory, but the benefit of giving thanks is primarily for the one giving thanks, not the one receiving it. When we give, we should give voluntarily and freely with no strings attached. Even though expressing thanks shows good manners, if we give with the expectation of receiving thanks or a returned favor, then we have missed the point of giving.
The art of giving and receiving is a learned behavior that we practice over time. Children are no different. We should invite our children to give thanks consistently, but not demand that they say "Thank you" every time we give them something. They might say it under their breath, but the sincerity will not be there, which defeats the entire point of giving thanks.
Understand that children learn respect by example
It is amazing how far a little patience and respect goes with a young child. My young son loves to climb up onto the kitchen counter and play in the sink. The end result of his playing is water splashed all over the counters and floor. I do not like him to be up near the kitchen sink, the disposal and other kitchen items. My initial reaction is to clench my teeth and say through them, "Get down and out of the sink!" It seems like we have to go through this scenario every morning.
I have learned that when I get impatient with my son, he is more impatient with his siblings. I have even seen him clench his teeth and say in the same exasperated tone to our 20-month-old, "Don't take my toy, babe!" I can do better to show my son how to ask politely and how to say "Thank you." I have learned to ignore the impulse to get impatient and to instead say, "Please get down off the counter and out of the sink, and thank you."
Show them by saying "Thank you" often
The simplest way to teach children to give thanks is to do it yourself. When a child brings you a fall leaf off the ground, be animated about it and say, "Oh thank you! What a beautiful fall leaf." Talk about the colors and demonstrate how to appreciate the simple, yet thoughtful gift. Remember, they chose to give what little they could find to you.
At meal times, offer a prayer of thanks for the meal and/or thank the person who prepared it or bought the groceries. Set the table and give children an opportunity to practice. Tell them, "When we ask for a roll, we say, 'Please pass the roll,' and then we say, 'Thank you' when we are given the roll." It is easy to show children how and when to give thanks by incorporating it into your daily routine.
Remind children and reinforce when they demonstrate politeness
You really cannot over-praise good behavior in a young child. Build praise and positive reinforcement into your daily routine. I make it a point to praise my daughter when we are between activities. For example, when she first gets home from school, before I even ask her about her day, I like to remind her of something positive she did in the morning before she left for the day; "Thank you for being so nice to your brother at breakfast this morning."
This positive reinforcement is a great conversation opener and sets the tone for the rest of our afternoon because it reminds my child what behavior I like to see, and also reminds her that she is capable of being respectful and kind.
Show your children how to keep a gratitude journal
Children are naturally great artists. They love to express themselves with pictures. I like to keep a binder full of all my daughter's creative drawings. One of the ways you can use their creativity to help them learn to give thanks is to invite them to draw a picture of the things that make them happy.
Tell your child, "I am so glad these things make you happy. How would you feel if you didn't have these things?" This conversation should be kept light, not dwelling on the "what ifs," but providing children with an opportunity to imagine their life without some of the things that bring them the greatest happiness. Show them how to collect their pictures and keep them in their own "Gratitude Journal." Explain that the word "gratitude" means appreciating and saying "Thank you" for the things we have that make us happy.