11/03/2014 03:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

4 Words of Kindness to Teach Gratitude to Your Children

In my last post, I described five messages that parents can send to their children to instill the value and practice of gratitude. In this post, I'll discuss how kind words can be another means through which you can convey the importance of gratitude to your children.

My family's 'catchphrase' for gratitude is "Mo' Grat," short for more gratitude. When my wife, Sarah, or I don't feel like we are being adequately appreciated, we simply say, "Mo' Grat" and a "thank you" soon follows. Our daughters, Catie and Gracie, will even catch us with a "Mo' Grat" when we don't say our thank yous.

Before Myra and Gene had children, they cringed at the sense of entitlement that so many children they met had. It seemed like kids these days felt they deserved everything they wanted when they wanted it without any appreciation for receiving it. When they had children, they sure weren't going to allow that attitude to creep into their family. And, one day after pre-school, their four-year-old son, Erik, gave them their catchphrase for gratitude. Their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Melanie, was whining loudly about not getting the snack she wanted and Erik spouted out, "You get what you get and don't get upset." Myra and Gene looked at each other in shock at the clarity of Erik's message. They asked him where he learned that and he said that it was part of a song that one of his teachers had sung that morning. They then asked him what it meant. He said that kids need to learn that a lot of kids don't have much and they should be grateful for what they get and not get angry for not getting everything they want. So the family decided to adopt it as their message for gratitude. Admittedly, when their children really, really want something, the catchphrase doesn't always settle them down, but Myra and Gene believe that just putting it out there will enable the message to sink in sooner or later.

Henry and Anna like to keep things simple. Their catchphrase is "Thank you for..." I add the "..." because they expect their three children to not only say thank you to those who help them, but also to be specific in what the expression of gratitude is for and to name the person who is the recipient of gratitude, for example, "Mom, thank you for dinner." or "Mrs. Camby, thank you for helping me with my math problems today." They believe that this specific of act and person helps their children really focus on and mean what they're saying rather than "thank you" being just knee-jerk and not particularly heartfelt reaction.

Gloria believes that all good actions must come from the heart. So her catchphrase for gratitude is "Have a grateful heart." Whenever her two children start to take what they have for granted, she invokes "Have a grateful heart." Plus, she reminds them that there are many children who are less fortunate than they. As she admits, these reminders don't always placate them (and often irritate them), but, combined with other messages of gratitude, her children slowly came around to appreciating and expressing gratitude for what they have.

Alma believes that gratitude is actually an exchange between the helper and the helpee. Her catchphrase for her family is "Gratitude back and forth." Alma expects her son, Rex, to solicit help by beginning every request with "Would you please..." in which he specifies the assistance he is asking for. When it is provided, Rex must then, like Henry and Anna urge, give thanks to the specific person and the particular act of helping (e.g., "Daddy, thank you for getting me more milk.") The recipient of the gratitude must then conclude the exchange with "You are very welcome. I'm happy to help." Of course, Alma can't ensure that every person who helps her son will respond this way, but she makes sure she does.

So often, the simplest words and actions have the most powerful influence in children. Choosing your words about gratitude wisely can mean the difference between gratitude being something your children have to express and something they truly want to express.

This blog post is excerpted from my third parenting book,Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You (The Experiment Publishing, 2011).