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How do you teach gratitude to the 4 year-old set?

standard August 4, 2009 8 responses

Maybe it’s because I’m reading Escape, the story of a polygamist wife, mother to 8 children, aunt to well over 30 others who lived under the same roof and shared almost nothing. Or maybe it’s because I’m constantly tripping over my daughter’s things. But recently I’ve been thinking about how good my girls have it.

They have two loving parents who are around a lot. They always have food and lots of it. They have snacks and healthy food whenever they want it. They have a comfy home and a large backyard to play in. They have more books and toys than they know what to do with. They have each other.

But to hear the whining in the car today you wouldn’t know it. It was all “Why don’t we ever…” “Why can’t we have…” “So and so has…”

My 4-year-old has everything she could possibly want, but it’s never enough. Which raises the question: how do you teach a preschooler gratitude? How do you make her stop coveting everything else and appreciate what she has?

She’s not a bratty child. In fact she’s pretty much the opposite. She’s always looking out for those around her. She shares everything with her friends and her sister. She takes all of us into consideration when she chooses or does something – our favorite colors, our favorite things… Compassion isn’t the issue here, it’s just plain ol’ want.

And I get that. I do. I really, really do. I mean, when I see someone using a fast new digital camera I want it too. When I see someone in a stunning outfit, I want it too. But I’m a big girl. I know how to separate that desire from how I feel about the things I own. Just because a dress is beautiful doesn’t make my clothes any less attractive. And I still appreciate my camera even if it is slower than the new models.

I just need to figure out how to teach my daughters that it’s OK to appreciate and even want new things, but it’s even more important to appreciate and love the things that we already have.

I started tonight. As we pulled into the garage I interrupted the barrage of rants and quietly asked C to tell me about four things that she had that she was really happy she had.

She thought for a long moment before answering.

“The thing that turns blue when we color with the water pen.” An odd choice considering they only sporadically play with their Aquadoodle, but a good one because she definitely gets a lot of pleasure from it when we do bring it out.
“Anything else? How about your new pony?” I prompted when she flailed.
“Oh. Yeah! My pony!” She beamed at me. “I love my pony!” She hugged it tight and she skipped off towards the house.

For that moment all thoughts of the things her friends had that she didn’t have were banished from her mind. She had her pony and she was home. Tomorrow I’ll have to start again, doing my best to remind her that she already has everything she needs, even if the other stuff is shiny and tempting.

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8 responses

  • My oldest is five so we’ve been going through this for a while with him. Couple things that have worked for us:
    -whenever he received gifts he’s required to fill up all his gift bags/boxes with old toys to donate to charity. This comes with a discussion about the fact that other kids aren’t as lucky as he is and it’s our responsibility to look out for them.
    -We have an ongoing conversation in our house about people vs. things. When he says his, “I never had that…” complaining we talk about all the people (not things but people) that he already has in his life. These talks always end with something along the lines of, “because things don’t matter, people do and you have a family that loves you and that’s all that matters.”
    -More recently we’ve started talking in great detail about wants versus needs. We almost approach it like a worksheet he’d get in preschool. We’ll rattle off items like a house to live in, food to eat, clothes to wear, toys to play with, a bike, a Spiderman birthday party and he’ll shout out whether they’re a want or a need. We then talk about mommy and daddy’s responsibility to provide those things he needs and his responsibility to deal with his wants. We give him opportunities to earn a little money here and there (sometimes he earns priveledges for things like reading for 10 minutes every night for 2 weeks) and let him buy himself his own toys, etc.
    -When a toy breaks, it’s gone. No replacing. At least not with our money.

    Admittedly some of these things are a smidge over his head (though not much) but approaching it rationally, logically and consistently early on keeps us from having to break bad habits later.

    Hope these ideas are helpful!

  • I remember taking Mac to see Santa when he was six. He asked for some Hot Wheels, and some “surprises.” Santa looked shocked, he said, “That’s all?” and Mac replied, “Yes, I trust you to choose things I like.”

    Wow, where did that conservativeness come from?

    However in my students I see more of the gimmees. I do like the idea of asking them about the things they have that they enjoy and treasure, but when that’s done in school, they tend to pick things that expensive instead of valuable. Something for us to talk or write about though…filing it for fourth grade…

  • Our problem at home isn’t so much wanting more things but taking good care of the things we have. I’ll be the first to admit my kid is spoiled and she can be a brat sometimes, but I don’t like to see her mistreat her belongings. I’m trying to get her to realize they can be taken away just as easily as they can be given to her, so when she threw a toy microphone at me the other day in a fit, I picked it up and deposited it in the waste bin. I told her if she cared so little about the toy to throw it across the room then she didn’t need it. It was only a $2 piece of junk from Target, but it was a toy that saw a lot of use.

    Unfortunately for some, gratitude is only learned after we lose everything we have. It’s a hard concept to grasp when you want for nothing and I think I may be a little behind in teaching the concept to my child. I like Emmie’s ideas about filling up the gift bags with old toys. We’ll be implementing that idea come the next birthday, which happens to be just a month before Christmas.

  • So, in Target usually, I really like it when I overhear a mom saying: “I know you want that. I hear you. You really like that.” The kid knows that s/he was heard and the mom knows that the want is important to the kid. She doesn’t say “no” or anything – just “Got it. I heard you. You want that.” Maybe the kids will learn to want more quietly.

  • Dear Lord YES YES YES!!! I am dealing with this too with my son who says things like “We can go to the store and just buy it” when I tell him that we don’t have x or when he says he wants something.

    I am thankful for your advice and the advice that others post to this blog because I really don’t want to raise a brat and I fear I just might be!

  • Wow. I have trouble remembering this myself, let alone teaching my almost four year olds. I hope they’ll value what I value, family time, a good book, laughter, all that good stuff, but I know the wish me want mes will kick in when school starts.

  • It sounds like you’ve gotten a fine start! Just taking light-hearted gratitude breaks on a regular basis with the kids will become a habit that will become ingrained, and a tradition they will likely pass to their own children someday!

    Feeling and expressing gratitude feels really good because it aligns you with Source energy & brings all of you into harmony. Anything that feels really good is something they’ll enjoy repeating!

    I don’t know that it will kill “the wants,” but it will foster a spirit of appreciation, and, as you’ve surmised, that’s a fabulous beginning!

  • Hi Jessica. I think about this all the time! But I really think you’re on the right track.

    In our home, we talk alot about what other people don’t have: warm home, good food, books, toys, clothes, etc. It’s become somewhat expected by our children, 5 and 3, that we give to others who don’t have as much as we do, especially before we buy something new.

    The kids are also used to “earning” new things by being rewarded with quarters for random acts of kindness or good deeds. If we get them something at the store, we’ll often tie it to something extraordinary that they did. We talk about money and how much things cost so they can start to appreciate the value of money too.

    The other thing we do most evenings is thank God for something that happened that day or for something He made – the flowers, trees, butterfly, cows, animals at the zoo, nice people at the store, etc. If our younger one mentions something like a toy, our older one will quickly remind her that God didn’t make that. This little exercise seems to put more value on natural things and feelings over toys or material things.

    So, for us, it’s a bunch of little rituals and things we’ve done since they were little. It works so we’ll stick with it. I like some of the other ideas too so we might try a few new ones.

    Good luck and thanks for this post.

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