As a child, I was what one might euphemistically call a “picky eater.” I disliked almost everything. The food I hated the absolute most were beets. Just the smell of beets made me gag. It made me queasy to be in the general vicinity of someone else eating beets.

Unfortunately, beets have always been one of my mother’s favorite vegetables. She loves them to this day. My mother also was a firm believer in children eating their vegetables. She really didn’t find my comments about beets being a torture device amusing. Frequently, she would inform me I should be grateful not only for the beets (as if!) but also that I had a mother who cared enough to make them for me. How I wished I had a mother who didn’t care quite so much.

I now have my own picky eaters. As I endure night after night of questions regarding categorizing “icky green stuff” as food, I find myself channeling my mother and telling my darling children how grateful they should be to not only have the “icky green stuff” but also a mother who cares enough to try to trick them into eating it. I can see in their eyes that they, too, could do without such a caring mother.

Trying to help a child to appreciate the small things in life is a daunting task. Kids are exposed to so many voices telling them that they don’t have enough: the last week’s “MUST-have toys” are no longer worthwhile. They get a constant message of needing more and more to be happy.

John Gray, author of Children are from Heaven (Harper Collins) wrote, “the whole basis of happiness is to appreciate what you have at the moment.” We all want our children to be happy, so what can parents do to help children appreciate the simple things in life?

1. Model Gratitude

The most effective way to help your child see the light is to be a grateful person. Experts call this incidental learning. My Mom always called it “monkey see, monkey do.” Children are natural-born mimics. They use their parents as a how-to guide to navigate the world. If they witness their parents routinely expressing sincere gratitude (kids have an innate ability to detect insincerity), they are much more apt to express it themselves. Express gratitude to your child on a regular basis. Let the people around you know how much you appreciate what they do. Not only will this set a good example for your kids, it’ll make you feel pretty good, too.

2. Expect your child to show gratitude.

Parents, noble creatures that they are, think nothing of getting up three hours early so they can make lunches, check homework, get everyone dressed, fed and ready to go in time to drive Suzie to before-school band practice and Timmy to his early morning paper route. The fact that neither Suzie nor Timmy thought to say thanks doesn’t even register in Mom’s overworked mind. As much as children may wish, or even truly believe, that the world revolves around them, it doesn’t. Noticing and acknowledging all the work that goes into creating their day is a skill that will serve them the rest of their lives. Letting them know in a non-demanding way the effort you put out will usually be enough to remind them to say thank you. When they do express appreciation for all you do (or even for a little of what you do), accept gratitude graciously.

3. Go guilt-free.

That said don’t demand gratitude or try the gratitude-by-guilt method. We all remember the “starving kids in Africa” who would have been thrilled to have even a portion of the liver (or beets) you were rejecting. I don’t know about you, but thinking about kids who would enjoy eating my leftovers did NOT make me any more thankful I got to eat the yucky food. It just made me resent little starving kids. I also wondered what the moms in Africa told their kids to get them to eat.

4. Commit random (but regular) acts of service and gratitude.

Incorporating gratitude into daily life is easier than you might think. Randomly throughout the day, find ways of expressing gratitude. During the bedtime ritual, ask your child to name three things he enjoyed about the day, or tell your child three things you appreciate about him. Make writing thank you notes a priority. The note has to be written before the gift can be used. Put a note in a lunch sack or in a backpack expressing appreciation for your child. Make an effort to thank people who help you on a daily basis: the school crossing guard, the librarian, a cashier, etc.

I never did learn to appreciate beets. I did, however, learn to appreciate having a mother who cared enough to attempt to force nutrition into my ungrateful system. I hope someday my kids will, too.

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