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Could your child be entitled? 8 books to foster an attitude of gratitude in the holidays

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 11/24/2022 Roxana Popescu

If you’re a parent of a child old enough to talk, chances are you have a story along these lines: You work hard to please your kid, only to have that diminutive judge deem the results – or, worse, your effort – inadequate.

You know how it goes: The unicorn you alchemically brought to life from clay and fairy giggles for your daughter's Christmas present had a purple mane, but she wanted rainbow. Or when the twins unwrap the world's first fully functional time-machine grandpa handcrafted for their birthday, they moan that it's not a Minecraft time machine.

And now, with gift-intensive holidays around the corner, there will be a constant stream of opportunities for entitlement and disappointment. But here’s one silver lining: These are also opportunities for talking as a family about empathy, manners and genuine gratitude. Because, sure, there's a place for formulaic rituals, like saying (a nudge-free) thank you. But how to help a child feel that thank you?

One challenge with teaching gratitude to kids, said Rosy Vasquez, the CEO and president of Community Through Hope, a nonprofit that services unsheltered and food insecure San Diegans, is that it's a complex message to get across.

"And even when you do attempt to teach empathy and gratitude, it can veer into a savior complex space ... but what you really want is the child to see themselves as a peer of those who have less than them (but with more resources)," Vasquez said. "It is hard for more privileged kids to connect with experiences they simply don't have."

Taking the bus is one example: "People that have had to take public transportation and maybe could not be taken to or from school by their parents innately understand and empathize with the struggle a little more clearly," she said.

Volunteering is one way to narrow that gap.

"You want to place your child in an environment that is safe but a little bit out of their depth and references a different perspective. Kids are naturally empathetic, especially this incoming (generation). They just need to be given an opportunity," she said.

To help spur these conversations at home, here are eight books for young children, with tie-in discussion points for families with older kids. Some of these are classics that will likely be familiar — but maybe you haven't explored their gratitude angle yet. Others are newer.

While these books aren’t all explicitly about gratitude, they can prompt a chat about what it means to appreciate someone’s effort or generosity. They can build empathy by reminding kids how nice it feels to be appreciated. They can help kids understand that resources like food and time are limited, so they shouldn't be wasted or taken for granted. And some of these books have a message that life's best gifts can't be bought or sold.

1. Giraffes Can’t Dance, written by Giles Andreae and illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees

This whimsical picture book is a story about being true to oneself. A lanky giraffe named Gerald decides to join a jungle dance contest. Everyone who dances before him is phenomenal. Then it’s Gerald’s turn. Spoiler: He’s not a great dancer, and the other animals let him know how ridiculous they think he is. Gerald loses confidence. But wise words from another critter help him find the courage to try again. Gerald ends up being an inspiration to the other animals, through his unique style of dancing — and acceptance of what makes him an individual.

Gratitude tie-in: Recognize and be grateful for the gifts you have, even if others don’t appreciate them.

Discussion idea for older children: Gerald was looking for external validation for his dance moves, but the story shows that being authentic is better. When is it good to conform to a group’s values and when is it good to follow a different path?

2. Please, Mr. Panda, written and illustrated by Steve Antony

In this board book, a fluffy panda wanders around an austere domain, offering doughnuts to other creatures. Each animal asks for — nay, claims — the doughnut, without saying please. And the panda declines. Then he comes across an animal with better manners, and guess what happens? She gets all the doughnuts. The narrative uses an effective — repetitive, hence predictable — pattern to drive home a message in a clear way: Boorish behavior doesn't win the doughnut. Those who do not say please are not rewarded. Those who do say please are rewarded.

Gratitude tie-in: Good things come to those who say please and thank you. Discussion point for older children: Being well-mannered and following social conventions — but also, frankly, masking base emotions such as greed — will help you attain certain goals.

3. Miss Nelson is Missing!, written by Harry Allard and illustrated by James Marshall

Miss Nelson is a gem of a teacher. Trouble is, the kids in room 207 don't recognize it. So they act on the brattier side. They're not just fortunate to have her as their teacher. They're so fortunate they don't even recognize how fortunate they are. Did someone order a wake-up call? One day, Miss Nelson disappears. Her substitute, Viola Swamp, is less charming. Will the kids appreciate Miss Nelson, at last? More importantly, will they get a chance to show it? (Spoiler: Yes, they will.)

Gratitude tie-in: Don't take people for granted. Sometimes you don't appreciate something until you lose it.

Discussion point for older children: When you're feeling taken for granted or unappreciated, how can you get the message across? Miss Nelson took a playful approach. Would you do the same thing or try something different?

4. The Giving Tree, written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein

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This 1964 classic has gotten new attention in recent years, as the pandemic has prompted more pointed conversations around parental burnout. Delicate line drawings and spare language do the heavy lifting in this tale, whose moral (and its ending) has been dissected, debated and satirized in everything from The New Yorker to The Michigan Law Review. Is it a parable about the importance of showing appreciation for gifts received? About the importance of setting boundaries for the sake of self-preservation? About the scarcity of empathy in a me-centered world? Are the greedy boy and the generous tree a model of parasitic (or symbiotic) co-dependency?

Gratitude tie-in: A younger child could explore roads not taken: What if that boy had said thank you? What if he had said (gasp) thanks, but no thanks?

Discussion pointer for older children: Read this parable, then have a conversation about giving, taking and the hidden costs of both. Consider who or what in your world are Giving Trees — seemingly abundant resources that, on second thought, are finite and dwindling. Consider your own resources: What is abundant, what is scarce, and what is harder to categorize?

5. The Seven Silly Eaters, written by Mary Ann Hoberman and illustrated by Marla Frazee

This witty book will be the ally of any parent who has felt like a short-order cook or had a perfectly fine meal rejected by the mini-dining critics at the dinner table. Too square? Too green? Too carrot-y? Too bad! Written in peppy verse that's decidedly fun to read aloud, this story lives up to its name and suggests it is quite silly — nay, ridiculous — for a parent to cater to kids' food whims without limits. Expressive illustrations help kids see — maybe even feel — the mother's exhaustion. (In the end, the kids redeem themselves with a delicious and surprising act of generosity.)

Gratitude tie-in: Being ungrateful and rejecting food is doubly wasteful: of the food itself and of the caretaker's work. Also, one can show appreciation with words, but also with a kind gesture.

Discussion pointer for older children: As it shows the toll of pickiness on a people-pleasing mama, the story advances a second message about setting boundaries. Kids can be invited to consider: Does setting a boundary help the parent, the child, or both? What kind of boundaries have they set in their own lives and what was the benefit of that, for either party?

6. The Thank You Book, written and illustrated by Mo Willems

The entire 25-book "Elephant and Piggie" collection is kid-friendly sugar that makes the medicine go down. Sugar: cool leading characters, hilarious dialogue, wordplay grown-ups and older kids can appreciate, surprising twists and drawings that are by turns touching and wry. Medicine: light and serious truths about society. Here, there’s an important reminder tucked in at the end: It can be easy to forget or overlook the people who deserve our thanks. Bonus reminder: It feels great to be acknowledged and thanked!

Gratitude tie-in: From the title to the repeated "Thank you's," this is obviously a book about expressing gratitude.

Discussion pointer for older children: As she says "Thank you" left and right, Piggie also says why she is appreciative. (For one, it's friendship. For another, it's ice cream.) That models how to elevate a perfunctory ritual into something more personal and more meaningful.

7. Fox the Tiger, written and illustrated by Corey R. Tabor

This is a quick, fun read with parents, but it's also designed for beginning readers. A fox wishes it were a fast, strong tiger. So it paints on some stripes and acts tiger-y. Which gives a turtle an idea: to put on a helmet and act like a race car. Which gives a bunny the idea: to don a cardboard box and act like a robot. And so on. Animal after animal wishes it were different (read: better). Until ... the fox meets a squirrel who pronounces that being a fast, smart fox would be the squirrel's dream come true. Well, that sure puts things in perspective, doesn't it?

Gratitude tie-in: Being grateful for what you have and what you are is another important kind of generosity: generosity toward yourself.

Discussion pointer for older children: Maybe it's time to introduce the Joneses, America's most toxic neighbors. Are the Joneses' to blame for making you feel worthless, or are you yourself to blame for your unrelenting envy — or is the root of it all a culture that so rewards material comparison and competition?

8. The Story of Ferdinand, written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson

This 20th-century classic about a gentle bull who would rather "smell the flowers" than fight in a bull ring, has been many things. Published in 1936, it was read by some as a parable about pacifism and disobedience (and banned in fascist Spain and Germany by Franco and Hitler). Empathy toward animals is another talking point. Another is the celebration of individualism. Another is non-compliance and resistance to established economic and social systems. Ferdinand is also a Bartleby for the younger set: a bull who refuses to bull and who so completely opts out of the transactional society he's literally shoved into that, for a day at least, he breaks the system. What may be more interesting than his refusal to conform is the way society bends around his will.

Gratitude tie-in: Gratitude exists on a parallel plane from this book, but its preoccupation with self-determination (as an alternative to peer pressure) offers a different, equally valuable lesson for parents looking to counterbalance messages of materialism during the holidays.

Discussion pointer for older children: Opting in and opting out are both choices. To shop — or not. To follow trends — or not. To listen to your instinct — or not.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.


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