Dear Dr. Michelle:
My six-year-old son doesn’t seem to have any appreciation for the gifts we get him. It’s especially bad around the holidays. He’s not grateful, pouts if it is not exactly what he wants, and sometimes even asks for more. I’ve tried to explain to him that his behavior isn’t polite and that he should be happy with what he has, which is plenty, but it’s not changing. What do I do?
This is a timely question as we find ourselves amid the holiday season. I know that many parents deal with very similar frustrations.
Your son is still quite young, and his brain has not developed enough to have an instinctual sense of gratitude. Truly being grateful is a complex feeling and requires a fully developed pre-frontal cortex in the brain, which doesn’t happen until the early 20s. Gratitude is also a feeling that must be taught. It is not an innate skill like breathing. But because it can be taught and he is young, there is still plenty of time for you to shape your son’s development of gratitude.
Developing your son’s values, such as gratitude, starts with you and the other adults in his life. When trying to help a child develop values, you want to start by talking openly about the values themselves, what they are, what they mean, what they look like, and why it is important to follow our values.
Begin by talking to your son about the meaning of gratitude, but do it during a time when he is not expected to show it. For example, you can explain that gratitude is the feeling and expression of being happy about something that has happened. Give him examples of times when he has been happy about something and explain to him that his happiness is a form of being grateful. Pointing out the ways he is already demonstrating gratitude will help him make connections between the value and his feelings. If he knows he is already showing gratitude, he will more likely repeat it because he knows he can do it.
Next, give your son other examples of what gratitude looks like. Try to use examples that he has observed or experienced and that follow your typical, positive social norms. Those examples might include saying thank you, sending thank you cards, or smiling and being nice after someone does something for you, etc.
Last, talk about why gratitude is important. Talk about how it makes others feel good and happy. Explain how it helps us develop good relationships with other people, and it helps people feel the desire to do nice things for us again in the future.
Be A Role Model for Your Child
Role modeling is also important. If you are grateful and your behavior demonstrates that gratitude, your son will pick up on these emotions and behaviors naturally over time. But don’t solely rely on what naturally takes place. Rather, be intentional in what you role model. Don’t wait for gift giving events to express your own gratitude and do not expect your son to demonstrate thankfulness only during times of gift giving. Any opportunity you have to say thank you to somebody, say it loud enough for your son to observe (ex: say thank you to someone who lets you go first, when someone opens the door for you, when someone helps you in any way) and prompt him to do the same as opportunities arise. Take special care to show gratitude to people in your own home, particularly to your son. When he is thanked and feels your gratitude, it will produce positive feelings for him, which will start to reinforce his desire to make others feel the same way.
Prepare, Prompt, Praise
When there is a gap between two people’s expectations, in this case between you and your son, the best way to bridge the gap is to talk directly about expectations. If you want your son to act differently about the gifts you get him, tell him what he can expect at gift-giving time before the event occurs and tell him what you expect him to do afterwards. To implement what I am suggesting, I like to refer to the “prepare, prompt, praise” method.
To help him get prepared for gifts he receives from others, be proactive. Prior to the gift-giving event talk to him several times about what he should expect. In other words, prepare your son for what is to come - that the gifts he will receive may not be what he wants or needs, and then work with him to identify appropriate ways he can respond when this happens.
Normalize his experience by explaining that everyone feels disappointment when they get gifts they don’t like. Share examples when you have been disappointed and what you did to cope. Further prepare him by helping him identify what he needs to do to still show gratitude and then how he can cope with his own disappointment.
The last step to preparation is to practice. Six is the perfect age for play – so turn the practice into play. Have him wrap you a gift that he knows you won’t like (an object around the house) and then you show him the right thing to do as you open the gift, feel disappointment, and role play how you appropriately respond. Then tell him it is his turn to play. You wrap him a gift that he won’t like (another object around the house) and let him practice how to respond and cope appropriately.
Ahead of a gift giving events, have your son tell you all the things he wants while you write them down. Then go through the list with him one by one and clearly explain if there are items you have no intention of buying, or that others may not be able to get him. By doing these exercises, you are managing his expectations ahead of time and therefore, creating a better chance that he won’t be as disappointed when he opens his gifts.
Then when the actual real event occurs, remind him and prompt him in the moment to say thank you (or whatever reaction you agreed upon together) and further prompt him to use the coping skill he identified. After he does the things expected, immediately praise him.
And finally, make sure you pay attention to your own expectations. Since your son is only six, appreciate the fact that it is natural for him to be ungrateful. Allow yourself patience, both with yourself and your son, because gratitude takes time to develop. You will need to repeat these interventions with your son over, and over again throughout his childhood and into his teen years. You are not likely to see him demonstrate gratitude until he is a young adult, but despite not seeing the reward of your hard work, do not stop teaching him. Just because he is not showing it now, does not mean he is not learning what he needs to demonstrate gratitude when he is older.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
Submit Your Question on mental health and/or family relations to Dr. Michelle K. Murray.