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Flint Stephens: Holiday season great time to teach children to be thankful and appreciative

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 4:34 a.m. MDT

Encouraging children to do simple tasks like raking leaves for a neighbor can help them learn to appreciate the efforts of others. (Flint Stephens) Encouraging children to do simple tasks like raking leaves for a neighbor can help them learn to appreciate the efforts of others. (Flint Stephens)

All parents want children who are thankful and appreciative. Unfortunately, most parents instead worry because many children today feel entitled. The holiday season offers a good opportunity for parents to help children feel and understand gratitude.

One way parents can help their children cultivate an attitude of gratitude is to emphasize opportunities for service. These acts of service can be simple. For example, the slogan for the Boy Scouts of America is “do a good turn daily.” The "Boy Scout Handbook" says, “That means doing something to help others each day without expecting anything in return.”

Too often parents don’t require children to do simple tasks such as daily chores, let alone ask them to perform daily acts of kindness. When parents occasionally ask their children to help, they often offer rewards or bribes even for simple tasks.

According to James Lehman, at www.empoweringparents.com, “Children … get a false sense of entitlement by being overly praised for things and rewarded for tasks that they should be doing as a matter of course. There’s nothing wrong with rewarding achievement and excellence, but it becomes a problem when you reward mediocre efforts.”

For parents who are trying to provide nurturing support, it might be disconcerting to know that their own actions can make it difficult for children to understand gratitude and opportunity. “Parents' overly involved reactions toward (their children) emboldens them to cultivate a certain unruly brattishness,” according to Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., in Psychology Today.

Susan Newman, Ph.D., social psychologist and author of "Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day," wrote,By providing our children with their every heart’s desire (and then some), we have failed to provide them the proper attitude in which things should be received. Instead of appreciating what they have, our children (of all ages) want — and expect — the latest iPods, an American Girl doll with a full wardrobe, and even cell phones.”

To help combat this entitlement mentality, author Mary Dixon LeBeau offered several ideas for helping children cultivate gratefulness. Her suggestions, found at www.parentingkaboose.com, include:

Have children do a random act of kindness each week. This could be as simple as drawing a picture and placing it in the mailbox of a neighbor, shoveling the walk for a mom down the street, or sharing dessert with a child who doesn’t have any.

Write and send thank-you notes. Have children write a note thanking the gift giver for the gift (whether big or small), and try to do this in a timely fashion. Make sure the child gives genuine consideration to the words used and specifies why the gift meant something to him.

During the Thanksgiving season, volunteer with children to work at a soup kitchen, collect can goods for the homeless, or make sandwiches for the local food bank. At Christmas, let children pick out a toy for a needy child or adopt a local family that cannot afford to celebrate the holidays.

Keep a “Blessings Booklet.” At the end of each week, parents can ask children what they were grateful for that week. Record each family member’s thoughts, and review them monthly.

The holiday season is a great time for children to perform acts of kindness and service within their own families. Parents can encourage them to help prepare meals, clean rooms for guests, take care of younger siblings, empty garbages, rake leaves, shovel walks and more.

As with most important lessons, perhaps the best way for parents to teach their children about thankfulness and gratitude is to set a proper example.

Flint Stephens has a master's degree in communications from Brigham Young University. He is author of "Mormon Parenting Secrets: Time-Tested Methods for Raising Exceptional Children." His blog is www.mormonparentingsecrets.com.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company