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Beyond the Wishlist: Raising a Thankful Child

November 21, 2011

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Thanksgiving is Thursday, but with the holiday season around the corner, many children are more focused on their wish list than are taking time to reflect on being thankful. Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a clinical psychologist and professor with Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, says gratitude and empathy do not come naturally to children, and parents need to start teaching those qualities early.

"We really have to help children to understand being thankful and grateful, being able to understand the words 'please' and 'thank you' - what does that actually mean, other than just words? Gratitude takes time to develop, and we need to do things to encourage it."

Gurwitch says parents can best teach thankfulness through their own behavior. She advises parents to use good manners and language and ask other adults in their child's life to do the same. Additionally, a child should receive praise when he or she shows thankfulness.

Parents can lead by example, by showing children how to help others. Gurwitch suggests encouraging younger children to help collect gently used toys or clothing for donation, and urging older children to volunteer to help those in need.

"When children can reach out and help others, when they feel that they're making a contribution, they feel better, they feel more empathetic, they feel more grateful and thankful, and they believe that there's something they can contribute."

Gurwitch adds that when parents reinforce a child's good behavior and show their own thankfulness, it can leave a lasting impression.

"Even if they have chores they are supposed to do, when we acknowledge that they did take the trash out or they fed the dog or they babysat their sister, that means something, and you're more likely to see them continue to do it and reach out to others."

In this "give me" society, Gurwitch advises parents to make sure their children know how to work for something they want.

"Ask yourself if your child ever had to say, 'Okay, this is something that I really want, and I'm going to be grateful that you've given me the opportunity to earn it.' Or does your child point at something, say 'I want it' and you say 'Okay, let me get my wallet.'?"

Gurwitch points out that developmentally, children are not able to understand gratitude and thankfulness until the age of 5 or 6.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH