Change of Plans: Children and Gratitude

I had it all worked out in my mind exactly how things would go…I could just see Katie’s smile.

Once we cleaned up the Thanksgiving dishes, we would move her room around a bit and set up a 3-foot Christmas tree.

We would place the tree skirt around the base and hold the ornaments out to her to choose where to place them.

As I pushed my shopping cart through the aisles of Target, loaded with her new tree, ornaments, and tree skirt, I could imagine her delight at falling asleep looking at the lights and dreaming of all of the magic that Christmas holds.

As I paid the cashier, the only thing that pulled me from my thoughts were these words…

“Mommy, you didn’t buy me anything exciting. I want a new toy.”

And in that moment, I actually considered canceling my transaction and bringing her home empty handed.

But, I was certain that once we got out of the store, she’d be grateful for all that I did buy her.

I was wrong.

Her ingratitude continued the entire way home, as she alternated between pouting and complaining.

Katie has always been the most grateful child and lately, we’ve seen a change in her.

I’ll be the first to admit that Craig and I have a pretty long list of what we expect from her and gratitude is pretty high up on the list.

As much as I was disappointed that we wouldn’t be putting her tree up right away, I know that we have to make her earn it. I know that it’s our responsibility to ensure that she grows into the kind of adult who we would want to know.

So, I gathered her up her ornaments and grabbed a bowl and a jar.

After dumping all of the ornaments into the bowl, I explained to her how things would work…

For each act of kindness or expression of gratitude, she earns an ornament.

Each time she is unkind or ungrateful, we remove one.

Once her jar is full, we will put up her tree.

We’re hoping to have it up by Christmas.

How do you teach gratitude at your house?

Have you ever had to use a similar method?

Who knew parenting would be so difficult? ;)


  1. Cate

    Oh, Nichole! I would have been devastated to hear those words at the register. And the pouting and complaining on the way home? Ouch.

    I love this sentiment: "I know that it’s our responsibility to ensure that she grows into the kind of adult who we would want to know." That is exactly what I strive for in raising my daughter.

    I hope the jar system works!

  2. Vanessa Jubis

    Hi Nichole,

    I know this feeling all too well… It's frustrating! I'll admit that sometimes I'm the parent that opts for the ultimatum, i.e., leave the store empty handed. But when I do choose to 'think' it over, I'll have a heart to heart talk with my child (not that that always works!) I'll also restrict toys or favorite items until they've shown a different demeanor. I've never tried the tactic you've implemented. I think it's a great tool! Thanks for sharing.


  3. Ryan

    Love this idea!!

  4. forgetfulshan

    We have a 'warm fuzzy' jar on the go at all times. We keep a baggie of craft pom poms (the warm fuzzies) beside the jar and she has to earn them. That comes when she's grateful for something, when she's sweet to her brother, when she does something around the house without being asked, etc. When the jar is full she gets a new (small) toy or a movie date with mama or daddy or dinner out. I like the movie dates best.

    She loves filling that jar. And sometimes it takes a loooong time. But when that last pom pom goes in, she is so proud of herself. And so am I. Her brother is a little young yet (18 months) but he'll get his own warm fuzzy jar too. I swear by it.

  5. katie

    I think the best way to teach gratitude is to show people "without". We try to do this with Eddie by doing things for charity WITH him. He helped us pick toys for the Angel tree at church. We pray for people and kids who don't have the toys and yummy dinners we have and he helped me pick things from the cupboard to donate to the food drive at my school. He's only two, so I am SURE we will hit some rough patches with this. But it's how my parents instilled how blessed we were into us. By never turning a blind eye to the fact that no matter how few things we had at the time, there was always someone with less that could use our help and prayers.

  6. That would be disappointing. Sounds like you kept your cool though and great idea with the reward system.

  7. It's so hard. They get so focused on what they think they want in that very moment, and it's nearly impossible to reason with them at those times. We earn most things with sticker charts. If they really want it, they will earn it. But we also really focus on praise for small acts of kibdness and teaching empathy. We are doing a family show drive for souls4douls next month and focusing on giving back during the holiday season.

  8. Jessica D Torres

    Good luck on this. It is difficult to teach children gratitude it seems but I think you are in the right direction.

  9. Carri

    That's a really good idea! I love reading your stories about parenting because I truly believe the both of you do such a great job. It's hard to teach our kids those lessons but it's so important.

  10. Alison@Mama Wants This

    I love your idea on how to teach gratitude. Katie is on the right path, with you as her mom.

  11. Tracie

    I think this is a great idea!! I'm sure this is a lesson she will remember for a long time.

  12. Oh Nichole, the timing of this post could not come at a better time. We've been struggling with our 3.5 yo for six months and I've been at a loss on how to teach her to be a good citizen. This fill-the-jar idea may just be what we need.

    Wonder if I can get it to work on the husband too.

    And also, I'm sorry. It's almost heartbreaking to see your little angel be a little shit, isn't it?

  13. Renée A. Schuls-Jacobson


    What a great post!

    I think this struggle comes with the independence/dependence push and pull. We have seen this cycle come and go — times when our 12 year old son — Tech Support — is the most generous human and times when he is so selfish, I want to crush his hand and drag him out of whatever store we are in and scream at him in the car until his head explodes.

    (Of course, screaming is not the best way to teach gratitude.)

    I like your method.

    It's visual.

    It's linked to your holiday.

    It's quiet.

    When you pack those three things together, you link a lot of power.

    We recently started doing some community service as a family with Tech Support. (Remember, he's almost 13.) He is starting to realize how fortunate he is in a way he hasn't understood before because he is actively seeing things with his own eyes and actually helping out. It's hard to really do that before kids are a certain age these days.

    I believe you have front-loaded Katie.

    So she will come back to you.

    With gratitude.

    And, like the tide, she will go out again.

  14. I love reading how you dealt with this. I have been reduced to tears (in the privacy of my room, after they are in bed) over similar issues, because I am stumped about how to deal with it. Despite the amount of love my parents have for my kids, it does NOT help that each time we go over there (once a week), they get SOMETHING even if it's a new toy or snack to keep at Grandma's house. (Now I vented in your post.)

    I like the ornament idea. It's so visual and concrete, and it has her favorite color!

  15. Efloraross

    This is awesome, and comes at the perfect time. My daughter has completely transformed in the past few weeks. I barely recognize her; her behavior is so ugly. I have really been struggling with how to deal with it. There have been many tears – on both sides. I love your idea!

  16. Sherri

    Oh, gratitude is one of the hardest things to teach. They see things, they want things, and everyone else always seems to have what they do not. I love your idea, and I'll bet she starts earning those ornaments pretty quickly…and nobody tells you these things about parenting. Around each corner is always something new.

  17. "I know that it’s our responsibility to ensure that she grows into the kind of adult who we would want to know." These are the words to parent by! What an amazingly responsive, resilient parent you are. You are creating not only a tradition but forging great character.
    One way that we foster kindness in our kids is to gossip about them when they do something lovely. I'll call my Mom, or tell God at bedtime prayers or mention to a preschool teacher or friend what (specifically) one of the boys did to show gratitude or care for someone else. They love this, they actually stand a little taller!

  18. great idea!

  19. I love the idea you have here! And I can't wait to see when Katie has her tree up and is grateful for so much more than "another toy". :)

  20. julie gardner

    So many parents (dare I say most?) would have greeted a moment like this with temporary frustration (if they recognized it at all) and then left Target grateful there wasn't a full-blown tantrum (which there often is).

    You took the moment to teach a lesson in a concrete, POSITIVE way (she gets to earn her reward and reinforce her own goodness).

    Just perfect, Nichole.


  21. tracy@sellabitmum

    Such a hard one. I do feel my kids are so sweet and kind and look outward – but we have many moments like this too. Prepare as they will continue – and that's okay. Don't we as adults sometimes do the same thing? The human ego is a fragile and interesting thing. Always another teaching moment in front of us. Love you.

  22. Ruth

    I think for most of us, gratitude has to be taught, over and over again. And we're up against the forces of advertising always showing our children (and us) all that we DON'T have. It looks like you are doing a great job teaching your kids to be grateful…not to mention how to be calm!

  23. Kir

    You are the mom I want to be when I grow up…and I feel like such a heel by saying that but wow, I am no good at restraining and “not doing it”. I don’t see my sons be ungrateful for many things…but when I do it hurts my heart to hear it.

    I just told John about this on our way home and he likes it…and he agrees that you are much stronger than we are. Her tree will be a beautiful gift to her and the grateful place se will have come to to get it will be wonderful too.

  24. twertman

    That question would have stooped me in my tracks too. I love the exercise that you've set up for her to learn how to be more gracious. I'm going to remember it for when we need it. And I KNOW we'll need it!! You're such a smart mommy. I'm sure Katie will earn all the ornaments sooner rather than later. Good luck.

  25. That is just a perfect idea.
    We are currently treading the "grumpy shorts/I want this and all of it"…There are a lot of time-outs in this house let me tell you.
    Love this idea.

  26. jess

    What a great mama you are. Such a good idea.

    It's hard when you have grand visions of things that don't play out. Easy to get frustrated, hard to remember they're kids. But the line must be drawn and you and Craig should be proud.

  27. Missy | Literal Mom

    Good luck to her! I know exactly how you feel – teaching gratitude is sooo hard, but so important. And sometimes I'm starting to think the only way you can teach it is through painful experiences like this. But it's a learning experience.

  28. Elizabeth

    I can totally relate…you have this beautiful expectation in your head of how your child's going to respond to your generosity and in one swift moment its crushed! I'm so sorry!
    We've implemented similar ideas in the past, but probably on a smaller scale. They seemed to be helpful. I admit at times I still get frustrated, wanting my daughter to be grateful without having to be prompted or without the promise of a reward, but I think periodic tests like the one you're doing are necessary to help our children to grow in gratitude. After all, my daughter's three and how often at the age of 31 do I still have issues with taking things for granted?! It's my hope that one day for myself and my children, a grateful heart will just be more natural…a part of who we are!

  29. This is such an amazing thing to do. In fact

  30. I really love this idea. My daughter is chomping at the bit to decorate her own tree as well. Same as you, we loaded the cart up with Disney and Barbie ornaments but all she complained about was getting new dress-up dresses like the ones we bought for another friend. I'm tempted to execute your same plan.
    This is where I desperately wish there was a parenting manual. I have no idea how to teach my kid gratitude. We are very lucky that we can give our girl a lot of wonderful things and she doesn't have any clue of something less. It's hard not to spoil your child. Give her everything we had or didn't have. I know it's going to bite me in the ass someday. It might even be tomorrow.

  31. Gratitude is fickle around here, too! Sounds like you've got a good plan, I hope the tree makes it up!

    I, too, have been in the position where I have to take something away because I can't support bad behavior by giving something nice. It's taken us a while, but we've discovered that rewards tend to go better at our house as a complete surprise after the good deed is done, instead of as a lure for choosing the right. So for something like a tree, I'd tell my 7 y.o. that if I catch her being grateful, I'll give her a surprise. (For the younger kids, I'd help them know when and how to show gratitude as instances arose.) I'd give her a few clues about the reward, but the less she knows about the details, the better — or she starts getting her own ideas about what her reward should be! I'd then buy and set the whole thing up while my daughter was at school. Once home from school, I would tell her how proud I am of her for expressing gratitude and surprise her with the tree.

    But the way my children have been acting lately, there would be no reward tree! What is it about Christmas that drives children to act out? I swear there's a correlation between the decorations going up and my children behaving badly. :/

  32. Fashion-isha

    I really love this! I was just grappling with this same issue today. My 10 year old would not stop whining about what she wanted for Chanukah. Finally I lost it and told her how you have to earn presents you don't just get them and I certainly do not have any desire to buy her presents when she acts so whiny and ungrateful. It's so upsetting when we work so hard to raise well mannered and loved children and they don't act in kind. But I also have grown children who are wonderful and I can say eventually the message does get in. I think what you did was wonderful!

  33. Marina

    Love the idea!

    If I did that to my kids though, they would expect a reward every time they said Thank you.

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