Kids and Gratitude: You’ve Gotta Fake It ’Til You Make It


There must be something buried deep within our genetic code that forces humans to perceive a correlation between a child’s actions and the success (or failure) of that child’s parent as a, well, parent. It’s ludicrous, I know. But for reasons my conscious brain cannot fathom, a well-dressed, well-behaved child signals a savvy, wildly successful Tiger Mom. And an unkempt, unruly child is the result of a dad who’s barely hanging on to his sanity—among other things.

Of course, we all know in our heart of hearts those scenarios are not necessarily true. But to anyone who isn’t giving parents the benefit of the doubt, maintaining an airtight personal brand after having kids is one hell of a trip.

From my point-of-view, it’s because the hardwiring of our identity unwittingly (and inevitably) becomes entangled with that of our kids, that parents often summon a handful of damage control methods to help deflect others’ judgment. Some successful, some not. And none as interesting to pick apart with other armchair philosophers as the reputation management tool of a “What do you SAY?” prompt.

Please. Yes, please. Thank you. No, thank you.

If your child actually uses any of these phrases, it might be a simple reminder. Or if your child refuses to acknowledge a gift given or request fulfilled with any response, but you’re out in public, or maybe in front of your boss, you might respond to the silence following “What do you SAY?” with “Oh, she’s so shy. Usually, we’re so good at this!” Something which indicates you’re just having an off-day, but no worries, you’re still a Wonder Parent.

Besides keeping up appearances (a pastime we would all do well to forfeit), this exercise in manners has other uses: (1) practice makes perfect and (2) the impact on others can be exponential—it’s not just about you and your kids. That is why, in our house, the motto is, fake it ’til you make it.

My daughter, Naomi, 16 months, does this flawlessly. As soon as she began to ask for things, we added “please” and “thank you” before and after every request. My husband and I went out of our way to model good manners, which, someone pointed out to me recently, also extends to our dog; “No thank you, Toby, please get off the couch.” Snack time for Naomi now sounds like this:

“Peanut!”

“What do you SAY?”

“PEAS!”

[hands Naomi peanut]

“TEE-TOO!”

Practice Makes Perfect
She does this with everything, without even thinking about it. A cookie she asked for. A tub toy she didn’t. An empty coffee cup. A sock. You could hand her a grenade and she would whisper thank you before happily teetering away. She knows the timing of her response; it follows being attended to or given something. Does she know why? Does she understand the effect on the person receiving her thanks? Probably not. Is it worth it? Yep. Learn the cue. Make the connection between situation and result. Prompt a search for more times when it’s appropriate. When you aren’t trying to figure out the mechanics of how, you can zoom out from the situation to better see and understand the why. And that leads me to my next point.

It’s Not Just About You
There is something about hearing “thank you” that warms an interaction—regardless of the level of commitment behind it. Do you need to know someone means thank you from the center of their being for you to accept it? Sometimes a token “thanks” goes a long way. Just saying it. Just hearing it. Only when a please or thank you is absent do I truly consider the nature of my synergy with whomever I’ve just stepped away from. And when that gratitude emanates from a child? Well, I haven’t seen a teacher, checkout clerk, fast food cashier, indoor playground attendant, man, woman, or rottweiler, who doesn’t smile.

Whether they think what they’ve just seen is sweet, quaint, interesting—like a dog walking on its hind legs—or maybe that they’ve just witnessed platinum-level parenting, they smile. And believe me, for most of us, on most days, that is truly enough.

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Image by 2nd Truth

Kate Smith is the writer and voice behind Katewordsmith, a modestly humorous, mostly self-depreciating Twitter account and eponymous copywriting studio for clients of all shapes and sizes. She makes her home in Minneapolis-St. Paul with her equally self-loathing husband, verbose three-year-old son, joyful infant daughter, and untamed Boston Terrier.