Getting our children to say thank you and actually mean it isn’t easy, but it’s more than possible! Here are the five most important tips for how to teach your child to say thank you consistently and authentically.

By: Maralee McKee, The Etiquette School of America

How do we get our children to say thank you and actually mean it?

Though the classic Christmas song promises that it’s “the most wonderful time of the year,” it doesn’t always feel that way to a mom who has just watched wide-eyed as her child ripped off the paper and bows of four presents from in-laws and others without slowing down to say even one thank you. While we wish our children would express thankfulness as quickly and with as much enthusiasm as they open their gifts, it doesn’t always happen.And it’s especially hard for them to slow down to express gratitude in the middle of the tinsel-strewn excitement of December.

With that in mind, here are five tips for getting your children to say thank you and even mean it!

5 Tips for Getting Your Child to Say Thank you and Mean It

1. Model gratitude. As moms we have to speak the language of gratitude fluently before we can expect our children to pick up even a phrase or two. Studies show that kids use courtesy words only about 20 percent as much as they hear them. If “please” and “thank you” don’t roll off our tongues at every opportunity, our children won’t be exposed to these words enough to remember to say them nearly as often as they should.

2. Teach the meaning. From teaching corporate seminars and children’s classes to thousands, I’ve realized that most people aren’t clear about the meaning of “thank you.” It doesn’t translate as, “I love this!” or even as, “I like this!” What it really means is, “I notice you did something for me.” Kids often feel as if saying thank you is telling a fib if the gift they just opened or the food set in front of them isn’t something they find appealing. When they understand that saying thank you has nothing to do with how much they like or don’t like what they’re thanking the other person for, they are more apt to say it — and mean it!

3. Talk about the feeling. The needs to feel noticed and appreciated are the two most powerfully felt needs for all of us. Talk to your children about how they feel when something special they did is appreciated, and how that compares to their feelings when no one seems to notice their efforts. Explain that every time they say thank you, they’re passing on the gift of the good feeling of being regarded and appreciated. Let them know that their very words are presents they’re giving the other person.

Bonus tip: Gratitude is most memorable when it’s expressed in a sentence or more. Once a child is no longer a toddler, they can offer more than a simple thanks or thank you. The best thank you sentence(s) have three parts: 1.) the actual thank you, 2.) saying the other person’s name, 3.) naming the gift and saying something nice about it. Here are a couple of examples:

4. Eliminate the element of surprise. Nobody likes to enter an unknown situation or find themselves at a loss for words. In the days leading up to your next social event, tell your child(ren) all about the party or event. Give them details about who will be there, how guests will be dressed, what everyone will be eating, and what they can expect in the way of possible conversations or scenarios. Give your children some fallback scripts and actions. Being prepared will help them feel secure. You might say to your young son:

“Corbett, at our party on Friday night, Great Aunt Edith is probably going to hug you and tell you that you’re too skinny. I know you don’t see her that often, so you feel weird about hugging her. And I know that you don’t like it when people say you’re skinny.

“If she hugs you, hug her back, smile, and say, ‘Merry Christmas, Aunt Edith. Thank you for coming to our party.’ If she says you’re too skinny, then nicely say, ‘This is just how I am for now. Don’t worry. I eat lots.’”

“She’s getting older and she loves you a lot. When you pay attention to her, it makes her very happy, and making people happy is a good gift to give.”

5. Practice gratitude towards the giver. Teach your children that the giver is more important than the gift. Role-playing is a great way to do this with younger children. A day or two before the party, get out a gift bag and put something boring inside, like a pair of socks. Use this as a visual aid for your child to practice opening a present that is not as thrilling as hoped. Explain that it isn’t necessary to fib and say they love it. However, they should acknowledge the gift by smiling, making eye contact with the giver, and saying something like, “Thank you for thinking of me, Uncle Rob! I can always use more socks.” In addition, role-play how to slow down and say thank you after opening each gift. Teaching your child to thank the giver before going on to the next gift prevents the “open and disregard” routine that happens when children tear open packages without showing thought toward the gift or the giver.

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