How to Teach a Child About Being Grateful

Recently I received a question on Twitter asking me, “Do you have any suggestions for teaching a preschooler appreciation for gifts given to him, even if he doesn’t like it?”

When Circle of Moms posed this question, “How do you teach a child to be grateful?” many parents chimed in. That tells me needing to teach a child about being grateful is an issue that occurs in a lot of homes.

When a child says “please” and “thank you” during the early years, 18 months – 3, it’s pretty much a rote expression, automatic and mechanical. If you think about it, you probably had to prompt your child by saying, “What do you say?” so s/he would remember to express thanks. At that age, most young children don’t fully understand the social graces behind saying please and thank you; they just know they’re supposed to say it.

Around ages 4-6, when a child begins going through the developmental phases that ignite independence and assertiveness, is when refusing to say thank you can rear its head. Not saying “thank you” isn’t really about misbehaving, it’s more about the fact that the child doesn’t have a fully formed habit of saying “thank you” when they receive something they don’t like. They’re not old enough to understand all the complexities of using social graces. They need to be taught, without punishment, so they can learn.

How do you Teach Appreciation?

Teaching a child to be grateful, like most things in parenting, is not a one shot deal, it’s an ongoing process. Most parents are embarrassed when their child doesn’t say thank you, and rightfully so. However, if all you do is correct and punish after s/he hasn’t said thank you, then the teaching moment easily can become a power struggle, not a lesson.

4 Proactive Ways to Teach Appreciation

  1. Model, model, and model some more
    Let your kids see you say thank you, a lot. When you’re given a gift or someone does something nice for you, say thank you. Say thank you to the cashier or the dry cleaner. Let you child know that when normal things happen, you express gratitude.
  2. Point out details
    Make a habit of pointing out the little details you like about things. Share what you like in the pictures they draw, compliment how nicely they’re eating, how quickly they got dressed, how they stopped what they were doing so they could listen to you. This not only builds rock solid self-esteem, it also helps a child understand how to pick out one detail they do like, from a gift they didn’t like, so they can genuinely say thank you. After all, no parent wants to hear, “Saying thank you for something I hate is lying!”
  3. Donate
    We had a rule in our house, about a week before each birthday or holiday, the kids had to survey their toys and clothes and pick out a few things to donate to those who were less fortunate. To avoid possible last minute hesitation about giving something away that was theirs, the kids were in charge of packing up the stuff and I was in charge of delivery. We also made sure to praise them for their generosity so they could see how the whole process worked.
  4. Practice Makes Perfect
    When it comes to teaching appreciation this is especially true. Give your child opportunities to do nice things for others in the family. This teaches him/her about learning to extend kindness, and receiving appreciation in return.

If your goal is to release a respectful, well mannered child into the world, then please know refusing to say please and thank you does come up over and over again as they age. If you’re embarrassed try saying, “Please excuse her, we’re working on social graces, again.”

Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding and The Authentic Parent Series. Go to to download two free chapters from her book and learn about other Proactive Parenting programs. Find Sharon on Twitter and Facebook.


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