This time of year, I read and hear lots of questions about how to teach children gratitude. Parenting magazines and websites are filled with suggestions and techniques, all adding yet another thing to our lists of what-we-are-supposed-to-do-as-parents. Over the years, the best technique I have found for my children is one simple word — don’t.
I know that my advice contradicts most of what you are hearing from others. After all, this is the season of gratitude. We are all supposed to be counting our blessings and finding the silver lining. Gratitude has a lot of psychological benefits. If our children do not learn to be grateful, then they will grow into self-absorbed egotists. All of those things are true. They also have nothing to do with our jobs as stepparents or foster parents. Even if you are parenting an obnoxious and spoiled stepchild, it is not your job to teach gratitude. Or, more accurately, you have many other and more important jobs. So, take a pass on this particular task, even at this time of year.
Understand Your Child’s Perspective
The first reason not to teach gratitude to a traumatized child is that the project is almost certain to fail. After all, you are a stepparent because your child’s biological family fell apart. Your stepson or stepdaughter may not be emotionally ready to be grateful about a new family. Until he or she is ready to accept you, then trying to teach them character virtues is useless. No matter how grateful our children should be to have such a wonderful stepparent as we are, they will not accept the situation until they are emotional ready.
With foster children, the situation is even more stark. What most of them want is for their biological family to be not neglectful, abusive, addicted, or whatever reason they ended up in your home. It is very hard for them to be thankful for anything when the foundation of their lives has crumbled. Caseworkers, judges, and our friends may think that the children are incredibly fortunate to be out of their old homes and placed with caring foster parents. From the child’s perspective, however, your home is an everyday reminder that the world does not work for them the way that it is supposed to. Trying to teach them gratitude will simply underscore all of the things that they do not have.
Even the most benign techniques can make life more difficult for traumatized children. If your family, for example, has a tradition of having family members share something that they are grateful for, then you may need to stop, or at least excuse your foster child. Being forced to come up with something they feel grateful about when they are in a strange situation with strange people may be more than they can safely handle. Wherever your foster or stepchildren are emotionally is where they are. Resistance to our encouragement to change may not be ingratitude, but simply how they cope with their trauma.
Focus on the Relationship
Our most important job is to build the best relationship we can with our children. Trying to teach lessons sometimes comes across as nagging, and often our efforts will hurt the relationship more than they help. Children who don’t have a relationship with us also do not want to hear anything about being grateful. As one of my foster children once phrased it, “I’m tired of having to say thank you to all of the adults who claim they are trying to help me.” Gratitude is like a decadent dessert. It is wonderful in small quantities, but it is too rich for a full-time diet.
Traumatized children also are especially sensitive to being treated as charity cases. I have had children yell, “Stop expecting me to be grateful to you,” when I had not been thinking that at all. Usually I was not even sure what I had said to prompt their anger. Traumatized children view everything through their individual narratives, and it is hard for those of us on the outside to know how the narrative works. Encouraging them to be grateful is an area full of landmines that we usually should just avoid.
Set A Good Example
We may not be able to use words, but we do not have to give up completely. Albert Schweitzer said once, “There are only three ways to teach a child. The first is by example, the second is by example, the third is by example.” We don’t have to use words to teach our children about gratitude; we can do the much more difficult task of modeling the behavior. We can say, “Thank you” regularly to other people. More important, we can say, “Thank you” to our children whenever we can. Empty compliments are never a good idea, but when they do something praiseworthy, even if it is only the chore they are supposed to do, hearing “thank you” can be a powerful motivator.
We can also express our own sense of gratitude. I discovered that telling my foster children that I enjoyed having them in my home had ways of working past their defenses when nothing else could. Of course, my statements had to be genuine and fit the conversation, but once I started looking for opportunities, I was surprised at how many I found. I could say, “I’m really sorry that you went through all of that, but I’m glad I’ve gotten to know you.” When they rejected me, I could say, “I’m sorry and hope you change your mind. I have enjoyed your company and I will miss it.” So many of them were used to being considered problems or rude or ungrateful that it had never occurred to them that being around them could be a positive experience. Also, the calculating lawyer side of my brain may have realized that it is harder to reject someone who genuinely cares about you.
Encourage Practical Actions
Finally, you can encourage your children to do concrete things, such as write thank-you notes for gifts. Don’t tell them you are trying to teach them gratitude; just say that it is the polite response. You can also make it non-negotiable. I have friends who, when their children receive presents for events such as birthdays, Boy Scout awards, or school graduation, impound the gifts until the children give them hand-written thank you notes. That’s a good plan for some kids, and a very bad idea for others. Find your own motivator for your children. Attitudes follow feelings. If they learn to express gratitude when people help them, they are more likely to develop that attitude.
Gratitude is an important character trait. Grateful people are happier and more resilient. It is wonderful when our children can learn the trait. When they cannot, however, we should take that lesson off our list of things to do or our list of things to feel guilty about. Our best plan is to demonstrate gratitude whenever we can, and otherwise just keep our mouths shut.