Most parents are actively trying to instil in their kids a sense of respect and gratitude for the things they’re lucky enough to have. No one wants to be the parent of ‘that’ child. The one who is rampaging through a friend’s house demolishing toys without a backwards glance. The one who is ripping open their birthday presents in a frenzy of expectation but has to be coerced into saying a grudging thank you. Or the one who leaves valuable things outside to be damaged or lost because they just don’t seem to care. As you look around your house now you might be able to get a visual idea of who needs the most work on this at your place. Has anyone left Christmas presents strewn across the lawn? Or destroyed some of them already through misuse or neglect?
Rest assured, it’s never too late to start working on an attitude of gratitude and care for our own and others’ belongings.
Here’s how. As with pretty much everything, it pays to start early. From the time children are very small, encourage them to be gentle and considerate with some objects. Some kids will always be more boisterous and prone to biffing things about, so do get down on the floor with them and model, coach, and make appreciative comments when they are able to be careful with things.
Also from an early age, instil a family rule of thanking friends and family for the gifts they provide. Parties can be hectic and sugar-fuelled, but there’s no reason why your child can’t spend half an hour writing small thank you notes afterwards to let others know that their gift was appreciated. As they get older, if they know that they will have to reconnect each gift with its giver to write a personalised thank you, it will help them to slow down and take notice of what they’re actually tearing open! Being very clear with kids about how to respond politely when they open a gift will help both when the gift is wanted, and when it’s not so much. Making eye contact, giving a smile, and using the giver’s name with a thank you is just as important even when the gift is a double up or not really your child’s cup of tea. Coach them to show appreciation for the act of giving, rather than the gift itself, but don’t worry if this takes several years to sink in fully!
Another way to help them learn about the actual cost of possessions is to encourage them to contribute towards non-essential treats and toys. Asking them to chip in with a tiny percentage of their pocket money isn’t going to make much practical difference to the cost of that small toy or book, but it might just help them to understand that an investment is involved with any purchase. The handing over of money or the swipe of an EFTPOS card can be a bit of an abstract concept unless we find ways to make this real for them. Small children are notorious for wandering the aisles of the toy department and wanting to take one of everything home with them. They don’t understand the limitations of finances and the fact that we have to prioritise purchases. To help this understanding develop, even if you can afford both items they want, ask them to choose just one. Making a sacrifice to obtain something is one of the ways we learn to appreciate and treasure that thing.
We can also try being a bit less willing to replace things that are lost through neglect or deliberate destruction. Be prepared to put up with the complaining and discontent, and the message will have an impact eventually. Yes, perhaps you could easily afford the time and money to get a new one, but investing in the lesson to be learned might be the wiser way to go here. Empathise with your child’s frustration. Don’t remind them of how silly they were in the first place, but kindly hold your ground. “You had a scooter. It was left at school and it’s been lost. I’m so sorry that you’re sad not to have one, but we will have to wait for your birthday or Christmas to see about getting a new one.”
And finally, never underestimate the power of modelling the attitudes you’d love your kids to develop. These things are so much more easily caught than taught, so check in with yourself regularly. Am I treating my belongings with respect and gratitude, repairing and restoring them when they’re broken, or do I throw things away and replace them as soon as I can? Am I a living example of someone who won’t be grateful until they’re happy, or someone who knows that the quickest route to happiness is by consciously practising gratefulness? Taking regular time during meals to talk about what we’re thankful for is one of the best ways to live this out in front of our kids. Incorporating a little thankfulness into the bedtime routine is another nice way to build a ritual around it. Ask your child, and have them ask you, “What are you grateful for today?”.
When it’s character you’re building, it really is the little things, repeated thousands of times, that make the difference. For the parents who really want to make appreciation and respect for belongings a part of the family lifestyle, there is a definite move away from the peer pressure to have the latest and greatest toys bulging from every corner of the house. A pared-down, carefully curated selection of useful and time-honoured toys might be the way to go if you worry that your child has so much that they don’t know how to engage meaningfully with any of it. This is of course lovely in theory but very hard to do in practice! Even if you’re determined, family and friends will bestow electronic gadgets and plastic-fantastics by the bucketload every time Christmas and birthdays roll around. If you’re keen on this idea, you have to be fairly firm with loved ones, and hopefully get them to support what you’re trying to achieve. Gifts of vouchers or money for the savings account can be just as thoughtful and appreciated, and will keep toy populations to manageable levels. If you do find things getting out of hand, just whittle down to what’s important again, pop the rest away securely somewhere, and perhaps bring them out on rotation, or for special occasions only.