Should we teach children to be grateful?

English edutwitter went into meltdown this week. It appears that a school – well known for its strict behaviour and traditional values – made their students write thank you cards to their teachers on the last day of school before Christmas. The card writing included a text supposedly written by someone in senior leadership about the things the students had to be grateful for. The text was rather long and made pretty clear why the students ought to be grateful for the changes made to their school and for the hard work of their teachers. Some took offence to forcing students to write cards to their teachers, indicating that this is oppressive as it strips the students of their rights to freedom of choice and expression. But is forcing students to display gratitude really a bad thing?

This has all reminded me of how adults teach kids how to use good manners. When children begin to speak, their parents are instantly onto them, insisting they say please and thank you every single time. A toddler originally has no idea what they are saying. They just parrot it back over and over until delivering please and thank you becomes part of who they are. When students enter primary school, this habit of saying please and thank you is not yet embedded, so we see primary school teachers doing exactly the same thing parents do. When a student says, “I need to go to the toilet” you’ll find 99% of the time a teacher will insist they ask – properly. “May I go to the bathroom, please?” is what teachers are looking for with “thank you” to follow. Towards the end of primary school, using manners becomes a deeply ingrained habit.

Developing the habit of using good manners takes a very long time. It takes A LOT of teaching. It is worth taking that time because out in the big bad world people will not respect you if you do not display good manners. An individual would be less happy for not knowing how to display them. Gratitude is an important virtue, too. You will be a happier person for being grateful and people will respect you for displaying it. Unfortunately, just like manners, gratitude needs to be taught and it takes a very long time to instil in one’s character. Most children do not naturally display a grateful nature, so it needs to be taught extensively over a long period of time, just like teaching good manners. Just as children are forced to display manners until they are well embedded, so too should we force children to display a grateful nature.

The school in question clearly has the same thinking in mind: they want to instil a grateful nature that they can take forth into the rest of their lives. One of the ways the school has chosen to instil a grateful nature is to get the kids to write thank you cards to their teachers. Apart from their parents, no one in their lives does more for them. It seems a perfect opportunity to continue to teach the children how to be grateful. Quite coincidentally, I had my kindergarteners do a similar thing: they had to write a thank you card to someone in the school. I did not restrict this to just teachers, but most of the kids picked teachers anyway. Some loved the activity; some didn’t, but they all did it because I thought it a good thing to do regardless of whether or not they wanted to.

One of the key objections to the school’s decision to make students write cards is that the students were supposedly forced, and therefore the gratitude was not genuine. In all honesty, some of the students probably weren’t grateful at all, and I can make this educated guess because that’s what happened in my classroom. Yet I insist on students saying thank you to every adult every single time no matter whether they are genuinely thankful. I expect them to say it because it will make them a better person in the long run. I do not think it matters if students are genuinely grateful or not, for engaging in the practice of gratitude will make them better people regardless. This, I am sure, is the mentality of this particular school, and I wholeheartedly agree with them. Some things need to be taught. It’s as simple as that.


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