So how do you know if you’re overindulging your child other than by, say, listening to yourself talk and going over your bank statements? Bredehoft and his colleagues have come up with four questions parents should ask when they do something for a child: 1) Does what you’re doing hinder your child from learning age-appropriate tasks? 2) Does what you’re doing allocate a disproportionate amount of family resources—time, money, energy, or space—to one or more of your children? 3) Does what you’re doing benefit you more than it benefits your kid? (This one stems from the fact that parents often spoil kids to compensate for something else—guilt over working too much, for instance.) And 4) Does what you’re doing potentially harm others, society, or the planet in some way even though it may benefit your child?
If you answered “yes” to one or more of those questions, then you’re probably being overindulgent, Bredehoft says. Of course, a little overindulgence here or there isn’t going to turn your child into a monster; it’s repeated overindulgence that’s a problem. For sure, it can be hard to stop once you’ve started, but it’s important that you do. (For more advice, check out How to Unspoil Your Child Fast, by Harvard-affiliated psychotherapist Richard Bromfield.)
So not overindulging your kids may be an indirect way to make them feel more grateful. But to raise truly thankful kids, you will have to do more. First, start by becoming a model of gratitude yourself. “If we’re not behaving in ways that grateful people behave, such as being generous and compassionate to our partners, kids, and neighbors, how can we expect our kids to?” Froh asks. If your son puts his dirty dishes in the dishwasher after dinner, thank him, even if putting dishes in the dishwasher is a house rule. Thank your husband for pouring your coffee and your UPS delivery person for every package while you’re at it—your kids will hear you and, probably, emulate you.
It may also help to talk your children through what is involved when someone does something nice for them. Research suggests that kids are more likely to develop a healthy conscience when parents repeatedly explain to them how their actions impact others; likewise, your kid may feel more thankful for his birthday present from grandma if you explain to him that she had to think about what he really wanted, go to the store, stand in line, pay for it, wrap it, and ship it. “If someone does something kind for you, and you’re a grateful person, you tend to recognize the intent behind the act. ‘You did this on purpose, went out of your way, took my needs into consideration and tailored this to me,’ ” Froh explains. “Kids aren’t going to get that on their own, so you have to walk them through it. Over time, they will start to do this naturally.”
And if your child seems a little too “me, me, me,” prompt him to think about others’ needs by discussing them openly. “Say, ‘But Johnny, I have to get to work too, and if I spend 10 minutes helping you figure out what you’re going to wear today, I won’t have time to eat breakfast,’ ” Thompson says. “Rather than saying, ‘No, I can’t help you now,’ or accusing the child of being selfish, you’re presenting it as a dilemma and leaving it at the child’s feet, which requires the child to struggle conceptually with what you want them to struggle with conceptually—how do I think about my needs in relation to others?” (This doesn’t mean, though, that you have to do what he decides; if his response is Then I guess you’re not getting any breakfast, go back and explain why this solution is unacceptable for you.)
Gratitude also has a lot to do with context—with “the recognition that things could be otherwise, and that they are otherwise for many, many people,” Dweck says. If your life is surrounded by comfort, create this context by talking about how other families live around the globe and by regularly involving your family in charity. Maybe, every year around the holidays, you put together a gift basket for a less fortunate family, or perhaps you volunteer at a soup kitchen once a month. The important thing is to involve your children in the process—they should help pick out the gifts, for instance, and help make the sandwiches.
Finally, always set the expectation of gratitude in your home, Bredehoft says. Expect your kids to say please and thank you, and make them write thoughtful thank-you notes (not just, “Thanks for the umbrella, it’s awesome,” but, “Thanks for the umbrella—finally I have something that will keep me dry when I walk home from school, and you even thought to pick my favorite color!,” which forces your kids to recognize the value of and thoughtfulness behind the gift). If your kids are too young to write, have them draw thank-you pictures instead. And always teach your kids to take care of their belongings. “If they damage something out of carelessness, don’t buy them another one—that’s it,” Bredehoft says. Or give them the option of earning enough money, via chores, to buy the replacement.
If raising your kids to be grateful sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is: It may mean changing your own behavior for the rest of your parenting life. But I know that’s what you want, because ultimately, overindulgence is really just good intentions gone awry—and by having those good intentions, you’ve gone a long way toward building a foundation of big-heartedness in your kids. “When children in those first couple of years of life are in a loving relationship where their needs are responded to, and they’re taken care of, and they trust that they’re going to be cared for, that leads down the line to generosity,” Klein says. Your kids may never be grateful toward you (sorry), but believe it or not, your (over)caring ways have given them the capacity to be thoughtful to others. When you go around the table tomorrow, consider it a chance to start fresh in the thanks-department, and then keep working on it all year—and, you know, forever.