Saying "thank you" is one of the earliest phrases we introduce to our children. In most cases the first few words we reinforce (other than Mommy and Daddy) are hello, bye, please, and thank you. Interestingly, each of these terms are quite abstract and while we boast with pride when our toddler begins speaking these phrases, how much of the meaning do they truly understand? Experiments show that abstract thinking (notions such as love, manners, fairness, empathy, etc.) does not begin until about the age of five or six. This doesn't mean we should exempt children from behaving properly, but instead that we need to look at our means for helping them to learn important concepts such as thank you.
Talk with your child about why we say thank you, giving concrete examples to provide context for their new understanding. Providing tangible instances from your child's experience helps make an abstract concept more straightforward. Narrate a play situation to contextualize the situation and define the scenario for your child. For example, "We say thank you to our friends when they share toys because we are happy they let us play with them."
Model being thankful. Use the term to it's fullest, well beyond a thank you on special occasions with grandparents or out at a restaurant. Say thank you to your child, thank your to your spouse, thank you to the cashier and bagger at the grocery store, etc. Your toddler may not innately know what this phrase means or why it is important, but they will start by understanding how we talk to one another - an important part of his or her social development. Praise your child to reinforce the behavior (different from rewarding for a behavior) and do not punish if they are hesitant to apply this language and social skill.
Involve your toddler in the process of creating a thank you note. Take advantage of those budding verbal skills and serve as the scribe for your toddler. Having your toddler dictate the letter to you saves you the task of coming up with something witty and is sure to provide an great opportunity for some vocabulary development (and surely a laugh or two). If your child can write his or her name, let him or her sign the dictated card or note. For the more advanced preschooler who is already writing letters, scribe the letter in yellow marker (or highlighter) and then allow your child to trace the letters to complete the letter. Likewise, you can do a combination of scribing and shadow writing (scribing in yellow highlighter/marker) for key words or phrases you want to emphasize.
Lastly, children build knowledge on previous pieces of knowledge (schemata) and benefit from consistency and repetition. Use appropriate terms and realistic expectations for your toddler as they practice their new knowledge and learn how to truly be thankful in their lives.
ABOUT CHRISSY K
I am mom to three boys (one with several life-threatening food allergies) who will never own too many picture books or create Pinterest-worthy snacks. Simply Chrissy K is a place to find helpful tips on parenting that stem from my work with families and design ideas based on our adventures building a home from the ground up.
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