10 Ideas to Help Children Learn to Say “Thank You”

by Dionna on February 21, 2011

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I do not believe in forcing or shaming children into reciting social niceties when they don’t mean them, (1) but I can appreciate that children who practice those niceties can find it easier to function among peers and adults. And while I think that modeling is the most effective (and easiest!) way to impart the importance of “please,” “thank you,” and the like, here are a few more ideas on how to help children learn how to express their appreciation. (2)

Kieran draws thank you pictures for his birthday and Christmas presents.

  1. Turn thank you into artwork: If your little one enjoys arts and crafts, then help her say thank you through artwork. Any kind of craft will do, and you can jot a little note to include with it that explains what the intent is (if it’s not readily apparent).
  2. Say it in a different language: Make saying thank you educational and fun by teaching your little one how to say thank you in different languages. This article gives us “thank you” in 28 languages.
  3. Replace “good job” with “thank you”: Instead of saying “good job” when your little one does something helpful, try “Thank you for _____, it helps me _____.” Saying thank you regularly to your child is one of the best ways to teach him how to thank others – be his role model!
  4. ________________
    Discover your child’s “love language”: Some people believe that “Every child gives and receives love in their own unique and special way . . . . There are basically five different ways children, and all people, speak and understand emotional love: Physical Touch, Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Gifts and Acts of Service.” (3) Here are a few ideas that build on the idea of “love languages”:

  5. Hugs and high fives (“Physical Touch”): I don’t know about you, but a child’s genuine excitement when he opens a gift, plus that impulsive hug (or high five), is enough thank you for me. I don’t need the ritual of a thank you card to reinforce for me that the child enjoyed the gift.
  6. Saying “thank you” in different words (“Words of Affirmation”): Let go of tradition – encourage your child to use whatever words come to mind to express appreciation for a gift. Instead of the bland “thank you for my bike” note, try “We put playing cards on the spokes of my bicycle wheels, now whenever I ride it, you can hear me coming! My friends thought it was so cool, they all put cards on their wheels too. This bike is so fun!” A child’s authentic enthusiasm will shine through so much more in their own words than in any of the more traditional words we could force them to use.
  7. Share the fun (“Quality Time”): If your little one is happy sharing toys and time with others, why not set up a play date with the thank-ee? Playing with a gift with the gift giver might be more appreciated than any thank you note.
  8. Make something to say thank you (“Gifts”): Some little ones love to create – whether it is painting a picture, baking cookies, or putting a collage together, a gift from your child’s heart is an incredible token of thanks.
  9. Do something nice (“Acts of Service”): When I lived at home, one of the ways I would tell my parents “thank you” for all that they did for me was to clean the house. I still occasionally go over and clean while Kieran is playing – simply because I know it will make my parents smile. If your child’s love language is service, find ways that they can lend a hand to someone who has done something nice: decorating for a holiday, weeding the garden, odd (and easy) chores; there are many ways a child can be helpful, and it can turn into a learning experience too!________________
    And a couple more ideas, just in case you have a little one who has not yet caught on to this social grace:
  10. Say it yourself: Really, when adults ask children to say “please” or “thank you,” all we’re doing is proving to the other person that we have manners. If you’re that concerned about making a good impression, say thank you yourself: kindly, genuinely, without the tone that you wish your child had done it instead (because all that will do is shame your child, which will not motivate them to say thank you – from their heart – in the future). Your gracious modeling will make a big impression./li>
  11. Don’t force the issue: Finally, relax. Don’t force thank you’s, they’ll come in time. Shaming or forcing a child into saying a grudging thank you may make you feel better in front of others, but it can backfire by making your child feel resentful. Make saying “thank you” a fun learning experience, not an unpleasant task that must be complied with reluctantly.

How does your child like to say thank you?

(1) See, for example, Seven Alternatives to Forced Apologies or Focusing on Children’s Needs
(2) Remember, none of these ideas will be very effective at turning “thank you” into a positive experience if they are forced. Watch for your child’s cues, keep trying until you find something that resonates with her!
(3) Finding Out Your Child’s Love Language

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Dionna (20 Posts)

Dionna writes at Code Name: Mama, where she shares information, resources, and her thoughts on natural parenting and life with a toddler/preschooler.


{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Debra Elliott February 21, 2011 at 10:34 am

I am so glad I found this site!

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Dionna @ Code Name: Mama February 24, 2011 at 10:55 am

We are glad to have you :)

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Alissa February 21, 2011 at 10:41 am

Such great ideas! This kind of falls under #2 but we taught our son sign language, including the sign for ‘thank you’. He is 18 months now, and only knows a few words but he signs ‘thank you’ when someone gives him something, or when he asks to nurse and I sit down to nurse him, or when we leave the grocery store. I am hoping that his spontaneous signing of ‘thank you’ will translate to spontaneously saying it once he masters the words!

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Dionna @ Code Name: Mama February 24, 2011 at 10:54 am

Oh wow – I cannot believe I forgot sign language!! Our son was a huge signer, and he still signs thank you at times. Thank YOU for the reminder :)

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Amie @ Baby in Bliss February 21, 2011 at 10:48 am

My daughter is pretty consistent with thank you’s, though they don’t always sound like the two words. Sometimes, they come in hugs and snuggles, sometimes in big smiles. I am also in love with book, “The Five Love Languages of Children”, finding that my daughter primarily connects through quality time. We enhance our quality time by listening to the CD, Baby in Bliss, that helps deepen our connection to each other. I believe it’s our connection that fuels my expressively thankful child. Dionna, thank you for this great post on API.

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Dionna @ Code Name: Mama February 21, 2011 at 9:26 pm

My son still says “Gank you!” instead of THank you. It’s the cutest thing ever. I actually worked with him the other day on the “th” sound and we tried “thank you.” He said “thGank you!”

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Whozat February 21, 2011 at 10:51 am

I have to admit that the “don’t make them say thank you” is one that I have some ambivalence about, for the reasons that you give.

When I think about it that way, I don’t especially like the idea of making my daughter (almost 28 mos) say something she doesn’t mean, on the other hand, *I* say “thank you” and “please” and “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” whether I really mean it or not, because it’s “what you do” to function smoothly in society, so I do encourage her to say those things, but don’t force the matter.

Once she learned the sign for “thank you” she started using it on her own, when she heard me say it to clerks, etc, when we were out and about, so I then began to encourage her to. I also encourage her to tell them “hi” and “bye-bye” and (insert approprate seasonal greeting) – again, because “it’s what you do.”

If she does, she does, and if she doesn’t she doesn’t, it’s not a big deal.

More often tho, the thanking is in response to a specific compliment that someone has given her (say, every little old lady we pass in the grocery store :-)) and I think that is a lot more important to acknowledge those. When I say “Thank you” she almost always signs it, and if I ask “Can you say it with words?” she sometimes will. If not, I’ll just say on her behalf, “No, I’d prefer to sign today.”

(She’s just started really talking in the past 3-4 months, and is often hesitant to talk with her words to strangers, altho she’s always happy to smile at and “flirt with” them.)

At home, I try to do the “thank you for….” think instead of “good job” and try to say it as often as possible, to model it, and it seems that it’s worked.

She now quite often says “thank you” spontaneously when we hand things to her, and occassionally seems to be thanking us for other things, too.

It just blows my mind when I hand her a toy without even thinking about it and hear “Sank you, Mama!”

We’ve used the same strategy with “Please” and “excuse me” – suggesting and encouraging it, but not requiring it, and trying to model it as much as possible.

(I started working on “excuse me” when I heard her tell the dog to “Move!” and realized she’d picked that up from me! Ouch.)

Now, when she’s nursing she asks for “Uh side pease!” and when she steps over toys, or squeezes between two pieces of furniture, she tells them “foof me!” so I think it’s working :-)

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Dionna @ Code Name: Mama February 21, 2011 at 9:30 pm

Thanks for your thoughtful comment :)

You said: “More often tho, the thanking is in response to a specific compliment that someone has given her (say, every little old lady we pass in the grocery store ) and I think that is a lot more important to acknowledge those.”

Because my son is often shy/reserved, I’m almost the opposite – I don’t force the issue with strangers, because it would make him so uncomfortable. But I do always thank the person in whatever way would be socially appropriate for him to do so. “Thanks! He just got that sweater for his birthday.” (or whatever) I try not to do the whole “Oh gee, he doesn’t want to say thank you, sorry about that, thanks though.” (But I’ve probably been guilty of that too, especially with the old ladies – somehow they make me resort to this prim and proper and need-to-please mom!) ;)

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Patti February 23, 2011 at 7:47 pm

Oh, I so relate to this topic!

Last summer we were visiting my mother and then my aunt dropped by. She brought a gift for each my daughters. My 4-year-old, who is an exuberant kind of girl, shouted ‘Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou!’ But my 6-year-old, who is a quiet reserved kind of girl, said nothing to my aunt and brought her gift over to me, her eyes shining bright and a huge smile on her face. She whispered, “Look Mommy! It’s so beautiful!”

My aunt started saying “What do you say? Don’t you have any manners?” All the joy went out of my daughter. She was humiliated. She had shown how much she loved her little gift from my aunt, but my aunt could only scold her for not saying ‘thankyou’. Then, we were all shocked when my aunt stood up and left the house, offended that we would were not going to MAKE our daughter say ‘thankyou’. As if I could MAKE the words come out of her somehow!

Anyway, my mother had sort of an ‘I told you so’ attitude about what had happened because she had previously warned me that other people would not understand our parenting choices.

At Christmas this year my mother gave my daughters beautiful dresses. Again my 6-year-old did not say thankyou but while we were eating our turkey dinner she looked across the table and said to my mother “I love my new dress.” My mother WEPT and said, “I get it.”

Isn’t an authentic expression of gratitude far more delightful than a coerced ‘thankyou’? I think so. And I hope that other parents will give their children a chance to express themselves authentically rather than in a contrived notion of what is proper.

I appreciate this post and the many alternative ideas to ‘thankyou’.

Thankyou, Dionna!

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Dionna @ Code Name: Mama February 24, 2011 at 10:55 am

Patti – I LOVE this comment. Thank you so much for sharing your story!

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Angela March 4, 2011 at 12:39 am

Thank you for reminding everyone the importance of a genuine expression of gratitude.
Focused on the recepient rather than on givers need for approval and or acknowledgement.

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Amy February 25, 2011 at 6:24 pm

This is an excellent and useful compilation, Dionna… as always :)

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Laurie March 3, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Thumbs up to recognizing that children express their gratitude in all kinds of ways! ‘Social graces’ and ‘manners’ will naturally follow as the parents model that for their children. With my grandkids, instead of trying to coax a ‘thank you’ from them when someone has given them something, or done something nice for them, I like to ask them something like, ‘Does that make you happy? How awesome!’
Thank you Dionna

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Marsha G September 29, 2011 at 9:23 am

Having been a children’s entertainer for a number of years, I always appreciate little ones who thank me for their balloon animals. Sometimes the huge smile on the little face and the twinkle in the little eyes is better than any words. I make it a point to thank them for coming to whatever event I’m working at, and to thank them for using their good manners. What amazes me is how many parents automatically say, “Say thank you” without giving the child an opportunity to speak before the command. Often the child has already said thank you before the parent reminds them. Sometimes parents need to trust that their teaching and role modeling is working. Thanks for teaching your kids good manners.

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