Before you spend the holiday season cringing at your toddler’s not-so-great manners and displays of gratitude, read this.
Even after you rearranged your work schedule to take your toddler to the park for a special outdoor adventure together, they still have several major meltdowns about ridiculously minor things.
After opening up a present from your mom, your toddler shouts, “I wanted the other superhero!”
After declaring the fresh milk you gave them isn’t cold enough, they sprint to the sink and dump it out.
In addition to being super annoyed, you’re also concerned that your toddler’s less than appreciative ways — constantly asking for things, not thanking loved ones for gifts, freaking out when you say no — are leading them into spoiled, ungrateful territory.
First, before blaming yourself or anyone else for turning your sweet child into an entitled monster, “it’s important to realize that genuine gratitude requires a level of cognitive development that is unavailable in toddlers,” says Denise Goldbeck, MA, a counselor who runs Kids in the Spotlight, an evidence-based performing arts retreat for kids and families.
Toddlers “literally don’t have the brain structures and neural connections that allow them to think about other people’s needs, to delay gratification, or think rationally in general,” says Laura Froyen, PhD, a parenting expert who helps parents be more effective and peaceful in their parenting.
By their very nature, Froyen notes, toddlers are self-centered and motivated to get their desires met. This doesn’t mean you should accept unacceptable behavior; rather, it underscores the importance of having “developmentally appropriate expectations,” she says.
So when you find yourself becoming enraged at your toddler’s rude demands and conduct, pause, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that they’re simply being what Goldbeck cleverly calls “pre-grateful.”
And, thankfully, you can work with that!
Even though gratitude doesn’t exactly come naturally to your toddler, you can still help them grow their thankfulness in small yet significant ways that actually benefit your entire family (and our world!).
While our kids’ behavior is glaringly obvious to us, our own actions (and attitude) are harder to see. Because children learn best through modeling, reflect on your own practices and beliefs around gratitude:
- Are you thankful for the gifts in your life?
- Do you thank others (including your kids) for their kindness?
- Do you find time to volunteer and help out?
- Do you include your kids in these good deeds?
Voice your gratitude
Make it a point to regularly share the different things you’re grateful for.
According to pediatrician and motherhood coach Kelly Luu, MD, this can be as simple as saying, “What a nice, sunny day! I’m so grateful that we get to spend it outside together.”
Create rituals around gratitude
Make gratitude a tangible part of your day. For example, ask everyone to name one thing they’re grateful for during dinner or ask your toddler to share a positive part of their day before bed, says Luu.
You can even jot down everyone’s grateful words in a notebook and regularly reread them as a family, adds Froyen.
Use respectful communication
If we want our kids to be respectful, naturally we need to do the same. But what does that look like with a sobbing, screaming toddler?
The key is to sincerely listen to your child and repeat their feelings using short phrases — “You’re mad! Mad! Mad!” — being expressive with your face and using lots of gestures, says Harvey Karp, MD, a pediatrician and author of the best seller “Happiest Toddler on the Block.” (This article delves deeper into the technique.)
To further encourage respectful behavior, set limits by being specific and positive, and not starting your sentences with “don’t,” says Karp.
Also, he notes, be prepared to follow through with respectful, reasonable consequences, as in: “Honey, I know you really, really, really want to stay in the park, but we have to go home and make dinner. Do you want to leave right now or play for 2 more minutes? OK, you set the timer and when Mr. Dinger rings, you can turn him off and we can pack up to go home.”
Point out grateful behavior
Label gratefulness both in your own child and the people around them, says LaTrice L. Dowtin, PhD, LCPC, a play therapist and an infant and early childhood specialist at PlayfulLeigh Psyched.
For example, she says, if your child hugs you after you do something nice for them, you respond with: “Aww, you’re giving me a hug because I helped you color. You must be feeling grateful for my help.”
Welcome all emotions
“When parents are able to support all emotions, children grow to be appropriately expressive, accepting, and grateful,” says Dowtin. “Children need to feel that disappointment is just as natural and healthy as happiness.”
This starts with validating your child’s emotions.
Douglas E. Noll, JD, an attorney and professional mediator who teaches parents how to raise emotionally competent children, calls this “listening your child into existence.”
Similar to Karp’s suggestion above, Noll notes that instead of telling your 2-year-old daughter who just stubbed her toe to stop crying and be a big girl, you might say: “Oh baby, you are scared. Your big toe hurts. You feel a big upset.”
Make gratitude fun
Since toddlers love to play, cultivate gratitude through games and crafty projects.
Allison Wilson, senior director of curriculum and innovation at Stratford School in California, shares these sweet suggestions:
- Write what everyone is thankful for on an ornament/pumpkin/leaf/heart and make it your centerpiece for your holiday dinner.
- Create a month-long gratitude challenge, with a different caring act each day: doing a chore for a loved one, naming a food you love, giving someone a compliment, picturing something you’re grateful for, or creating something that expresses how you feel.
- Go on a gratitude scavenger hunt by creating a list of simple items or experiences for everyone to spot at home or during a walk.
Increase your child’s patience
To teach your toddler to be less impulsive and more observant of others, hold off on giving them something they really want, says Karp.
For example, he says, tell your child: “Sure!” followed by “Wait, wait! Just a second, sweetheart, I have to ________. As soon as the timer rings, I can give that to you.”
Set your timer for 20 seconds and once it dings, come right back, praise your child, and give them what they need.
Explore gratitude in stories
As a family, you might read specific books on gratitude.
Or look for gratitude in the stories you already read.
Either way, Wilson suggests discussing questions like these: “How did giving thanks make the main character feel? What actions did the characters take to express gratitude? What connections can we make about the story to our lives?”
Don’t force it
“If you want your kids to be genuinely grateful, the worst thing you can do is use rewards and punishments to get those behaviors,” says Froyen.
Why? This trains your kids to only practice gratitude and do nice things when there’s an external reason — not because it’s simply a kind thing to do.
When you’re trying so hard to be a good parent, dealing with ungrateful behavior can feel demoralizing (and lead you to shed a few tears — we’ve all been there!).
You also might feel embarrassed, wondering what awful comments others are whispering about your parenting or lack thereof.
However, as Froyen says, remember that “toddlers are naturally self-centered and they are still learning, and their lack of gratitude or ‘rudeness’ says nothing about them, their nature, or you.”
In short, while your frustration absolutely makes sense, try to take it easy — on your toddler and always on yourself.
Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, is a freelance writer and associate editor at PsychCentral.com. She’s been writing about mental health, psychology, body image, and self-care for over a decade. She lives in Florida with her husband and their daughter. You can learn more at www.margaritatartakovsky.com.