family dinner By Addison Cooper, LCSW – 

Your seven-year-old makes a face at the dinner table and complains about the meal you’ve prepared. Your tween hops out of the car without so much as a thank you. You feel frustrated and unappreciated.  How can you help them learn to be thankful, appreciative, and grateful?

The first step is to figure out what you actually want. Are you looking for a behavioral change, or for a mindset change? The behavioral change (you might call it “learning manners”) would look like this: your child would say “thank you” at socially-appropriate times and would stifle socially-inappropriate responses. Your efforts would be acknowledged formally, and embarrassing broaches of social protocol would probably happen less often; you wouldn’t have to apologize for your kids as often. You can bring about behavioral changes through training. Remind your children that they should say “thank you”, and express your displeasure when they don’t. It might work, and your kids might exhibit good manners.

But what you probably want isn’t so much a behavioral change as it is a mindset change. Good manners are, of course, better than bad manners in almost all situations, but unless your child develops a mindset of gratefulness, any good manners that they do exhibit will be the result of concessions to social norms or the result of your focused efforts on their behaviors. If they do learn a mindset of gratefulness, the good manners will likely follow, but they’ll be pleasant symptoms of their new mindset rather than simply externally-imposed behaviors. It’s kind of like this: if a tree’s roots are not in good health, the tree will bear unpleasant fruit. You can take that fruit and try to sweeten it with sugar to make it palatable, but the fruit itself isn’t that good. If the tree’s roots get healthier, the fruit itself will automatically become more pleasant. Focusing at the root saves you the trouble of sprucing up each piece of fruit, and makes for a healthier tree. Helping your child develop a mindset of gratefulness will eventually produce better manners, and will make for a healthier outlook on the world for your child.

Here’s three things you can do to help develop a mindset of gratefulness:

1. Model the mindset you want your child to have.

Kids learn from you, and they learn more from what you do than from what you tell them to do. Take a quick overview of yourself ñ right now, but also throughout the day. How often do you express gratefulness? This might be expressed as a genuine “thank you”‘ to the barista at Starbucks, specific statements of appreciation to your friends, or spontaneous verbal appreciation of something beautiful, like pleasant weather, a singing bird, or a gorgeous sunset. It’s so easy for us to grab our coffee and go, leave small kindnesses unthanked, and let quotidian beauty go unremarked, and instead to give air to our negative feelings of stress, worry, and anxiety. Kids learn from their parents. The first step towards teaching a mindset of gratefulness is developing one yourself, and letting your child see you consistently exhibit it. Try to say at least six grateful things today, let one or two be towards your child and have fun being spontaneous with the rest!

2. Provide opportunities for your child to participate in the mindset.

Once your kids are used to seeing and hearing you be thankful, they might start doing it spontaneously, but you’re more likely to see success if you provide positive, stress-free opportunities for them to practice the skill. Try to sprinkle them at routine times throughout the day. On the way to school, why not share one thing you’re happy about or grateful for, and ask them what’s one thing they’re grateful for? At dinner, share something good about your day, and ask them to remember something good from theirs. If your kids are young enough to be tucked in at night, why not end the day by remembering something good from the day that’s passed, and looking forward to something good that might happen tomorrow. No pressure if they don’t have an answer. You’re just providing an opportunity for them to hear you be thankful and for them to participate if they want. There’s no pressure on them to participate because you’ll do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day.

3. Give positive feedback when your child shows a thankful mindset.

When you do “catch them in the act” of doing good, reaffirm them. This is a chance for you to offer some extra gratefulness. ìI’m so glad to hear how happy the snow made you this morning.î ìI was so glad to hear that you thanked your teacher for giving you extra help today.î ìIt made me feel very appreciated when you thanked me for the car ride to school this morning.î

Model the mindset, provide opportunities  for your child to see and practice the mindset, and give positive feedback when you see it going right.

I’m thankful for your interest in teaching your kids to live with a grateful mindset, and one day, they’ll be thankful for your work towards that end.

Addison CooperAbout the Author:

Addison Cooper, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in California and Missouri and is a therapist. He has served as a social worker and supervisor in foster care adoption and has helped over 100 children be adopted from foster care. Addison writes family movie discussion guides and reviews movies from an adoption point-of-view at Follow him on Twitter @AddisonCooper

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Follow Us Online MagazineParenting AdviceAges and Stages,Emotional and Social Well-being,ParentingBy Addison Cooper, LCSW -  Your seven-year-old makes a face at the dinner table and complains about the meal you've prepared. Your tween hops out of the car without so much as a thank you. You feel frustrated and unappreciated.  How can you help them learn to...Parenting and Family Fun Activities for Kids