Gratitude is one of the trickiest concepts to teach toddlers and preschoolers – who are by nature self-centered – but one of the most important. By learning gratitude, they become sensitive to the feelings of others. Instilling grateful feelings now will benefit your child later in life.

By age 2 or 3, children can talk about being thankful for specific objects, pets and people. By age 4, children can understand being thankful not only for material things like toys but for acts of kindness, love and caring.

Children model their parents in every way, so make sure you use “please” and “thank you” when you talk to them (“Thanks for that hug. It made me feel great!”). Here are other tips to building a foundation of gratefulness in your child.

  • Work gratitude into your daily conversation. Weave appreciation into your everyday talk: I am so happy to have Maddy as our puppy; I love it when you listen. When you reinforce an idea frequently, it’s more likely to stick.
  • Have your child help. By participating in simple household chores like feeding the dog or stacking dirty dishes on the counter, your child will realize that all these things take effort.
  • Find a goodwill project. Find a way that your child can actively participate in helping someone else, even if it’s as simple as making cupcakes for a neighbor. Talk about how helping makes the other person happy.
  • Insist on thank-you notes. Teach your children the importance of writing thank-you notes for gifts. Toddlers can scribble on the card with you writing the message for them. Older children can add drawings. Just the act of saying out loud why he or she loved the gift will make him or her feel more grateful.
  • Practice saying no. Of course kids ask for toys, video games and candy all the time. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to feel grateful when your every whim is granted. Saying no a lot makes saying yes that much sweeter.
  • Be patient. You can’t expect gratitude to develop overnight; it requires weeks, months, even years of reinforcement. Stick with it and you will be rewarded with a child that appreciates and is thankful.