Ever been in any of these scenarios?
“I took my children on a fantastic vacation to Disney World. My youngest ate it up but my five-year-old pouted the whole time. The lines were too long; the weather was too hot; the food sucked. Why can’t he appreciate the sacrifices we make for him? It’s not like us parents want to go to Disney World…”
“My mom gave my three-year-old daughter a beautiful and expensive doll for her birthday. My daughter doesn’t really like dolls, and when she realized what the gift was she threw it aside and went to play with her Legos. My mom was really hurt, and I was mortified. Why can’t my daughter just be thankful for a gift even if it’s not exactly what she wanted?”
“My five-year-old has it so easy. We buy him toys; we pick up after him; we go out for treats (ice cream and the like) all the time. He really wants for nothing, but he’s so ungrateful. He has absolutely no idea how good he has it, and that there are people in the world with so much less than him. What can I do about this?”
We all want our kids to feel it and to express it, but somehow they seem to have such a hard time doing it. Really, how hard can it be to say “thank you” when someone gives you a gift?
Let’s start by making a distinction right off the bat that researchers who study gratitude make: the difference between manners and gratitude. Manners require that we say “please” and “thank you,” but a very young child can be trained to say those things without any real understanding of what they mean.
(As a side note, why is it that children don’t use “please” when they KNOW they will get the thing they want faster if they say it? 😊)
So a child as young as two can say “thank you” on demand, or even spontaneously, when offered something they want. But is this gratitude?
The researchers say “no.”
The Virtue of Gratitude
True gratitude requires three conditions to be in place:
- A benefactor, who freely and intentionally provided the beneficiary with something;
- The beneficiary recognizes the benefactor’s intentionality;
- The beneficiary freely chooses to repay, if possible and appropriate, with something the benefactor needs or wants.
This is what researchers call the “virtue of gratitude,” and is also different from a general sense of gratitude as an emotional trait that is more like wellbeing, or enjoyment of a certain situation like a beautiful sunset, or thankfulness for having the benefits in life that we enjoy.
So part 1 of the definition is usually not a problem; people give things “freely and intentionally” to children all the time (trips to Disney World; expensive dolls, outings for ice cream…).
Theory of Mind
Part 2 of the definition is where things get sticky. Now this might sound crazy, but young children actually believe that everyone sees the same thing they see, and thinks the same things they think. They don’t yet have any concept of the fact that other people sees and thinks different things. This is why your child will call to you from the next room and say “Can I play with this, Mama?” when you can’t see her: she doesn’t realize you don’t know what she means.
The scientific name for the understanding that your child has beliefs, desires, knowledge, and that other people have different beliefs, desires, and knowledge is Theory of Mind.
Children begin to understand five concepts as they acquire Theory of Mind, which generally develop in roughly this order (although they can come and go a bit as they solidify):
- That different people want different things;
- That different people think different things;
- That seeing (or being told about something) leads to knowing about that thing;
- That people have “false beliefs” – If my child and I take cookies from the cookie jar and hide them in the fridge, where will my partner look for the cookies when she comes home? If my child thinks my partner will look in the fridge, he doesn’t yet understand false beliefs: he couldn’t understand that my partner doesn’t know we put the cookies in the fridge;
- That people can feel one way and act a different way.
So to truly feel gratitude, the child has to recognize that the benefactor went out of her way and thought “even though I don’t want to go to Disney World/go to the doll store/get ice cream, I think my child would really enjoy that vacation/doll/ice cream so let’s do that thing,” and young children simply do not have the cognitive ability to do this – and therefore can’t be grateful.
Part 3 of the definition relies on the understanding that people want different things. If I say: “Grandma really went out of her way to pick out a beautiful doll for you; what do you think she might like as a small gift to say ‘thank you?,’” a three-year-old is likely to say “stickers!” or “Legos!.” They don’t yet understand that different people want different things and that Grandma may not be thrilled by a gift of stickers or Legos.
As the child gets older, he begins to understand that Grandma won’t appreciate stickers but might like a new book on gardening, and he also develops the ability to understand time and plan for future activities (e.g. “Can we pick out a book on gardening for Grandma at the bookstore when we go into town on Saturday?”).
So all this is to say “stop expecting your young child to feel or express gratitude. They just can’t do it.”
Supporting your child in developing gratitude-inducing skills
But take comfort in the fact that there are some things you can do to support your child in developing the skills needed to feel and express gratitude. These include:
- Use language to help your child understand that people think and want different things. For example: “I wonder what Mama would like to have for dinner. Shall we call her and ask?” or “What do you think Jesse would like for his birthday?” “How do you think Ana felt when Amy took the toy from her?” Using this strategy while reading books can also be a useful and easy entry point to this activity. Also point out where your child likes similar or different things/activities than other people.
- Help your child to understand that not everyone knows what he knows. When he tells a neighbor about something that happened recently, encourage your child to give enough background information for the story to make sense because “our neighbor doesn’t know why we went into town yesterday.” Note that people from some cultures (primarily those with a strong written tradition) tend to tell stories in this way; children from cultures that use more oral narratives may have different ways to organize stories there’s much more detail on that in my episode on storytelling.
Set up mini-surprises for family members. Do something special for them, and emphasize to your child that the other person won’t know what you’ve done until you (or your child) tells them. Just be prepared for your child to blurt it out as soon as the other person walks in the door…
- Talk about time. Put a calendar on the fridge and mark upcoming appointments; let your child cross off the days as they pass. Talk about things that happened in the past (ten minutes ago; this morning; yesterday; last week; months ago) and when things will happen in the future. Try to refer accurately to time when you talk with your child: when she asks you to play, say “I’m busy right now, but I can play in twenty minutes when the big hand on the clock reaches the six.” Children can be confused about how long it takes time to pass when you say “I’ll be there in a second” or “Just a minute,” when you will actually take much longer.
Watch for the stages of Theory of Mind and the ability to understand time and plan ahead to develop in your child, and then you’ll know when they should be able to express gratitude. Until that point, you just have to let it go. (If the child has all these abilities and still don’t express gratitude then there is likely some kind of problem unrelated to the child’s development that should be addressed, possibly in conjunction with an expert.)
Finally, this might sound counter-intuitive, but you might consider spending less time organizing your life around your children. Part of “different people wanting different things” is that different people want to spend their time doing different things, and sometimes someone else in the family has to do something they don’t want to do so one person can do the things they do want to do.
Perhaps your child can help you to brainstorm creative ways to get everyone spending more time doing things they enjoy, but perhaps sometimes they just have to suck it up and go somewhere with you even if they would rather be somewhere else. They might also realize that they actually enjoy nature journaling or decorating cakes or browsing used bookstores or whatever it is that gets you going if it means spending time with you.