Parenting for the Perplexed: A long way from say thank you to true gratitude

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via

Thanksgiving’s coming, and we wonder how to teach our daughter to be genuinely thankful and appreciative, not just say what she knows we want to hear. We often debate with ourselves whether the typical “What’s the magic word?” really teaches anything more than parroting. T.D. in Tiburon

Dear T.D.:
Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on two interrelated issues here: teaching children proper manners, and inculcating genuine gratitude. Let’s address them in order.

I am not a fan of the common, cutesy prompt, “What’s the magic word?” But I do support what stands behind it: the idea that you have to teach children manners and respect. I don’t think politeness is something that flows naturally out of children’s hearts and mouths. Of course, the primary mode for teaching manners is modeling. But explicit instructions are valuable as well.

Rather than “What’s the magic word?” simply say: “How do you ask politely?” or “How did Daddy teach you to ask for things?” Be sure to model “Please,” “Thank you,” “You are welcome,” etc., with your own behavior. Ultimately that’s what will make these words stick.

Now to a related issue — about whether to make your child say “I am sorry” when he has done something unacceptable, especially hurt another child. Here, some child development experts (and parents) argue that a child should say she is sorry only when she is, indeed, sorry. But genuine remorse among the very young is uncommon. Apologizing when one does not mean it, goes this view, is worthless emotionally and does not promote the development of true empathy.

I am on the other side of this argument. I believe that saying “sorry” is an essential part of polite, “civilized” behavior — derech eretz (the way of the land), to quote the Talmud; “We’re living in a society here!” to quote “Seinfeld.” Even if young children take a long time to develop empathy, remorse and principles of ethical behavior, they need to know when we do not approve of a behavior and that we expect an apology. Where I would draw the line is in pressing a child to “Say it like you mean it.” It won’t make sense to him, and it won’t work.

Once a child has “performed” the apology, I would encourage a concrete act of empathy. For example, if a child has bitten another (very common!), after having him say he is sorry, send him to bring an ice pack for the child he has bitten. If a child has snatched a toy from another and pushed him in the process, after her “sorry,” ask her to bring the other child a stuffed animal to hug.

Now to genuine gratitude. Let’s be honest — this is an area where most of us can aspire to advance and improve. It’s so much easier to kvetch!

Start by showing appreciation for ordinary things your child does. But don’t overdo it! Don’t thank her every time she does the tiniest thing to be helpful or cooperative. Gradually raise the bar for what you consider acts of kindness and cooperation.

With a young child, it’s important to go slowly, be specific and use a light touch in inculcating gratitude. Be concrete. You might say: “I am so thankful for this card from my friend because it cheers me up,” or “I appreciate that you helped me clean up because we finished faster and now we can read a story.” You are communicating cause and effect — indicating how someone’s positive action has made you feel grateful.

Rachel Biale