A toddler smiles happily as he removes toys from his little chest to play with them

Teaching Gratitude to Toddlers

I can tell my almost 3-year-old son, Bennett, has been working on manners recently in his Primrose classroom. Lately, his tantrums have evolved from lots of screaming to him saying “no” emphatically, followed by a polite “thank you” after a few beats. It could be wishful thinking on my part, but I view this new routine as Bennett’s first real step toward showing gratitude.

Now comes one of the hard parts of parenting, where I have to help Bennett get from manners to expressing gratefulness. Like most parents, it’s important to me that Bennett realizes all he has to be thankful for. Experts emphasize that gratitude isn’t passive, it must be practiced, and the benefits are significant. That means we have to help foster a sense of gratitude in our children early on so they learn how to practice it and can reap the rewards.

Unfortunately, in our society adults and children alike are often conditioned to focus on what we don’t have rather than all we do have. However, this just makes it all the more important to practice gratitude and other positive character traits regularly. Since you can’t exactly explain why gratitude is so important to toddlers, we’ve found some creative ways to encourage Bennett to practice thankfulness every day:

  • Create a gratitude collection. With Bennett, we collect things in a “treasure chest” made from a small box. It sounds strange, but it really seems to resonate with my son. The idea is for Bennett to find wonder in little things around the house and in the backyard – in our case, a Matchbox car, a miniature statue of St. Joseph, and some fiery red maple leaves. Bennett looks through his box each night, and says “wow.”
  • Don’t go overboard with surprises. My wife and I give Bennett presents very sparingly. We don’t want to give him mixed messages, nor do we want him to equate love with material things. And we really don’t want him to feel entitled to anything. He needs to appreciate, not expect.
  • Insist on mannerly interactions with others. When we go grocery shopping, for example, we’ve taught Bennett to greet his friends who work at the store. It is a little gesture, but I believe it’s important for Bennett to acknowledge and be thankful for the people around him who help him in one way or another.

For more tips to help your child develop good character traits, check out these parent resources.

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