How To Teach Children to Say Thank You
Expressions of gratitude strengthen social connections, kindness, and empathy
By Dr. Terrie Rose
Holidays and birthdays are a fertile training ground and opportunity for practicing manners. As we exit the season of gift giving, many parents are left wondering if their children missed a few lessons. Saying “please” and “thank-you” are essential social skills but children don’t always use these niceties.
The authors of the book, Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick, conclude that based on science, “deliberate practice” and persistence create the habit. In the language of parenting — gentle reminders, consistent practice, and supportive suggestions help your children learn how and when to respond. And, because children are continuously developing, so too must our teaching.
Learning to say thank you can start right in the beginning. Use social niceties with your baby! While it might seem funny to say please and thank-you to a baby, your baby will learn the language of appreciation right along with the names of farm animals. Kind and gentle words also increase your child’s sense of connection and love.
Toddlers do well when they hear appreciation for things they are already willing to do. We want these words to signal appreciation, not begging. So rather than saying, “PLEASE pick up your toys!” try, “You picked up the bear. Thank you.” Thanking your toddler when he helped clean up or gave you a hug reinforces a positive and mutually engaging relationship.
By age three, children can be prompted to use socially appropriate words. Model appreciation in everyday happenings, like when your spouse helps with dinner or goes grocery shopping. Build consistent opportunities for your kids to express thanks at home. And use gentle reminders for preschool-age children to express thanks for everyday happenings too.
Encourage your children to start each meal by thanking the cook.
Make a drawing for someone who has done something nice for your family.
Always follow “Thank you” with specifics like “for playing blocks with me” or “for making me laugh.”
Words of appreciation are placeholders for the emotion of gratitude. Gratitude is the emotional experience associated with the recognition of benefits received. The expression and experience of gratitude promote social connections and reinforces kindness and empathy.
Understanding the feelings of gratitude is emerging for young children. Use opportunities of receiving to help children develop emotional language and awareness. When the child receives something special, or someone does something especially kind, ask your child, “How does your heart feel?” Or as your child jumps up and down with joy, ask, “What are your feet feeling?” These types of questions help children build awareness of the emotional expression of gratitude and joy.
Expressing gratitude is not just good for children. Studies show that people who regularly express gratitude are better at understanding the perspective of others and experience higher levels of optimism and reduced stress. Who couldn’t use a little more optimism and a little less stress?
Try a simple expression of gratitude: “I appreciate you!” Those simple words spoken to your child or spouse can make you feel more committed and understanding. A recent study found that the key ingredient to improving the quality of marriages is gratitude. Researchers at the University of Georgia found that expressions of gratitude predict marital satisfaction.
Easy ways to express gratitude:
Say “thank you” for as many things as possible.
Each week, write a thank-you note to someone who is special to you.
Meditate on a pleasant sensation, for example, the warmth of the sun or the sound of birds.
Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, offers a simple practice shown to enhance well-being and decrease depression.
Each night for a week write down in a journal three things that went well during the day. Next to each item, write why it went well. Extend this simple practice to your children. Just include three things for which your child is grateful or what made him happy during your nighttime ritual.
By bringing to awareness and rehearsing the positive, we bring upon ourselves feelings of abundance and peace. And, while please and thank-you are social niceties, our experience of gratitude builds our empathy, resilience, and abilities to achieve for ourselves and others.