Is it reasonable to expect young children to say thank you?
“Say thank you for your present” is a line we repeat time and again at Christmas and birthdays but how much do children really understand why? What are reasonable expectations for young children when it comes to sharing a new toy or being polite when they are given a jumper they have no interest in? And what can we do as adults to support them in these tricky situations? We asked our My First Five Years’ experts for their views.
Q: Is there a specific age when it's reasonable to expect children to say thank you for gifts? I want my child to have good manners and am keenly aware of others’ expectations but how much do they actually understand about gratitude?
It’s not really about a particular age because every child develops at their own pace. Also, if you decide that at a certain age they ‘should’, it can become a bit of a stand-off – so as a parent you say they have to say thank you, your child says no, then they can't back down from their no.
Instead, I would go with making thanking a part of what you do. So, you always thank on your child's behalf and when they see that they might copy. Or you could even try saying, “Shall I say thank you or would you like to?”
You can also think about other ways of saying thank you which put avoid your child being in the spotlight, such as making a picture, a few squiggles on a card, sending a photo, video or voice note.
You don’t need to worry about the exact language they use or if they can’t hide their disgust at the gift of an itchy scarf. The latter more likely involves their understanding of a social convention rather than gratitude – which might come later as they are beginning to develop empathy.
Q: One main source of conflict in our house at this time of year comes from having to share new toys with siblings. Any tips on how to manage these situations?
Sharing is really complicated and involves some difficult skills, which a toddler might not have mastered yet and older children might be better at demonstrating, but not necessarily. Knowing this means that you might approach these situations differently. It’s not that your child just isn’t being kind but that they need a little more support and guidance.
Offering another child a turn with a toy involves your child being able to think about what that child wants and then having the ability to imagine how they might feel, so the beginnings of empathy. Empathy is something your child learns from how they are treated and how they see other people treat each other.
Taking turns can be a good alternative to sharing because if one child ‘owns’ the toy, from a child’s point of view sharing often means giving the thing you’re enjoying playing with to someone else and potentially never getting it back!
So, you can support your child to develop empathy by recognising and naming their emotions to help them understand how they might feel. You don’t always need to make it better – sometimes they might feel frustrated, angry or disappointed and that’s ok. Help them to practise turn-taking and model kindness and listening to each other.
If two children both want the same toy, don’t step in straight away unless someone is getting hurt. Watch for a little while and see if they can understand each other’s point of view and find a way to settle their disagreement themselves.
Watching can also help you think about how to help if you need to; you will see if the toy or object is an important part of one child’s game and so might be difficult for them to give up.
That said, if a toy is their brand new one then I would question whether they have to share. How would we feel if we had just been given a brand-new pair of pyjamas and then someone said that we must let someone else wear them? If we force children to share, rather than building up empathy we might create resentment. “You’ve got to share” is not always the most helpful response. It is ok to want to keep something for yourself.
Remember that these situations are also good for learning about consent and standing up for yourself too.
Q: My child gets upset when friends come to visit and doesn’t want to share his/her toys. Is there anything I could do to help this situation?
It doesn’t necessarily sound like your child doesn’t want to share but rather that they are worried about losing their special things, which is understandable.
Before any friends come round you could move any precious or new toys elsewhere in the house so that it is clear to everyone that these are not to be played with.
Talk to your child about this and let them be involved in deciding which these special toys are. This also encourages empathy as you can discuss their own feelings and think of alternative games that you think their friends might like to play instead.
Q: Do you have any other tips for how to encourage gratitude? How can I ensure that my child doesn’t take all the lovely gifts they receive for granted?
Empathy involves being able to reflect on, understand and respond to other people’s feelings and emotions. When described like that I think it is easier to see why this isn’t a quick thing to master. Your child is beginning to develop the skills they need to be emphatic to those around them, but this takes time and experience. We talk about how to do this, and how to develop many more skills in far more detail, within our My First Five Years app.
One simple thing you can do is model gratitude yourself.
Saying thank you when they pass you a favourite toy, or even a half-eaten crisp! If you support a charity at Christmas, get your child involved. Even if they don’t understand the bigger picture yet they will see that it is important to you. You could make a card or choose a present for a sibling or relative together. Keep it simple, it doesn’t matter if the front is nothing but a few crayon marks (although feel free to get the craft materials out if you both fancy). You can talk about the message they would like to send and, depending on their age, how the person receiving the card might feel.
Find ways to celebrate the small things throughout December too. Point out Christmas lights in windows and say thanks to the people who put them there for you to enjoy. Take a moment to think about something fun that happened in their day and talk about it over dinner.
This time of year brings so much opportunity for wonder and awe, and you will be immersed in their growing appreciation of the world. When your child points out things that are making them smile, take a moment to share their enthusiasm. You could maybe say, “I’m really grateful that these things exist too.”