Jeremy Olson writes about children and families, and is an overscheduled father of two. His blog tackles the best and worst of parenting, families, health and love. He wants to hear from you - what's going on in your house?

Can forcing kids to say ‘thank you’ backfire?

Posted by: Jeremy Olson Updated: March 7, 2011 - 12:13 PM

A zillion parenting books come across my desk. Most get a scant look, but Mary O'Donohue intrigued me with the title When You Say 'Thank You,' Mean It. The Chicago author takes on the parental instinct to tell kids to say thank you for gifts, whether they appreciate them or not. 

How guilty am I? Last night I made my daughter tell my parents "thank you" for a new dress. I had no idea at the time whether she appreciated it -- and mom, if you're reading, she loves it! -- but I reminded her to say thank you as a courtesy. O'Donohue's point is that parents should teach their children true gratitude -- so they say thank you on their own whether they like gifts or not, because they recognize the thought and effort that the givers put into them.

As a baseball coach, I'll put this in terms I can grasp. Telling my daughter to say thank you on the spot was like coaching a player how to hold the bat in the middle of a game. Hitting technique has to be taught through repetition in practice, just like true gratitude has to be taught and instilled at home.

Gratitude is only one of 12 concepts in O'Donohue's book, but it was the focus of a Q-and-A I had with her.

What child hasn’t experienced that moment of opening a ho-hum gift and feeling compelled to say thank you? Why do you feel it is important for parents to change this somewhat commonplace behavior? 
 
When our son Connor was five, I had an epiphany. When we prompted him (repeatedly, for years!) to "say thank you," we were merely training him to act thankful, rather than teaching him how to be a grateful person. There is a huge difference between those two concepts, so my husband and I set out to bridge that gap by spending a month focusing on gratitude with our son. We posted pictures of things we were grateful for on the walls (in) the playroom in our house. We also talked about all the things in his life he could be grateful for (with no guilt) and helped him understand that everyday things (like rain puddles to splash in, riding bikes to the park, and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches) were all worthy of gratitude. And it had a big impact on him. Connor started to express his thanks on his own, with sincerity. And it wasn't me as his mom expressing my thanks through him - it was coming from his own heart.
                                                                                                                                                
Minnesota Nice refers in part to the fact that Minnesotans will smile and act like everything is fine when it isn’t. Minnesota probably invented "saying thank you whether you mean it or not." Is it problematic to change this type of behavior in children when it is so socially ingrained and almost expected from those around them? 
 
It is challenging! But I think we as parents need to consider whether we are actually teaching our children about values when we prompt them to say things like "thank you" whether they feel it or not. Because what's the point of saying "Thank you," "Please," or "I'm sorry," if there is no meaning behind the words? Doesn't the person hearing the words deserve genuine gratitude, respect, or remorse? What message are we sending to our children when we insist they say words that they do not mean? For me, it was a contradictory message! I mean, I was telling my son and daughter to be honest at all times, but then insisting - yes, insisting - that they say things they didn't mean! Kids pick up on things like that and I can tell you from personal mom-tested experience that it confuses them.
  
At what ages do you believe children are ready for the lessons and activities in your book? And is there an age at which it would be too late to engage in these types of lesson? 
 
We started with my son when he was five, just by spending a month focusing on gratitude. Then I created the whole system when my son was ten and my daughter was five, focusing on twelve values per year, like compassion, self-respect, respect for others, and a sense of purpose. So five was an ideal starting age for our family. Some of the other families who have done the exercises have had children 13 and older. For the most part (though not in every case) starting at this age was problematic because many of the teenagers just weren't interested in working with a structured approach to values, so they didn't cooperate well. But again, each child is different. My son is 14 now and we still focus on a different value each month. It's "Respect for Others Month" at our house right now. And my son still participates.
 
The Gratitude Board seems like a fun way to communicate the concept. How do you make sure the written expressions are genuine?
 
We just talk about what happened in their days, even before we get out our markers to write on the Gratitude Board. My son might be telling me that he was disappointed that his class didn't get to go outside during recess because it was raining. I'll ask him what he did in indoor recess. Turns out he played chess. He loves chess. That actually turned out pretty well after all. He can be thankful for that time indoors playing chess with a classmate. Maybe another day my daughter is sad that she missed out on a friend's birthday party because she was home sick with a bad cold. So we talk about how it's lucky she didn't go to the party and give all her friends her cold. Or we focus on what we did at home to help her feel better like playing cards or watching funny movies together.
 
The point is that often there is a positive aspect to a seemingly negative event ... When it comes time to write on the board, usually after dinner, we  remind our children that they don't have to write down a big thing - it can be something small, like dad packed their favorite lunch or they didn't have that science quiz they weren't quite ready for. This helps them realize that gratitude isn't only for big things like gifts but is also for those everyday things we often miss. 
 
When did you know that your monthly activities were working? What are some memorable examples for you when your children lived out the concepts of gratitude or self-respect, etc., that you instilled in them?  
 
My children regularly and genuinely say "thank you" on their own, they (usually) knock before entering a room, and they routinely ask before borrowing someone else's belongings. They treat themselves with respect too - and that's no small thing in a world where people so often put themselves down. But one story comes to mind because it's one of those "full-circle" experiences. It happened when my daughter was seven years old. Two years prior, at age five, she had tried to steal a candy bar from a store. That actually was the catalyst that prompted me to develop a month-by-month system for teaching values to my children. Well, on this particular day she was facing the same temptation - a delicious candy bar at eye level. I was paying for a birthday card at the cash register so I wasn't looking right at her. She might have been able to get away with it. She really wanted this candy bar just like she had wanted the one when she was five. But this time was different. As we walked out of the store, my daughter told me about how tempted she had been to steal the candy bar. "Why didn't you?" I asked. She told me that now she knew it was wrong to steal and that she was an honest person so she couldn't steal anything, ever again. Even a candy bar.
  

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