How can we make our boys more gracious?

Smart love - December 2006


The Piepers

Q. With the holidays coming, we are again facing the question of how to get our boys ages 2, 4 and 6 to say appropriate thank you's for the presents they get from their relatives. Some presents come from far away and require some sort of note. Others are given to them in person. Usually, they dive into the presents and give a perfunctory "thank you" when pressured, but I don't think the relatives who have gone to all the trouble to choose and wrap gifts feel properly appreciated. The note writing is even worse, all we hear is, "Later." My husband and I feel the children are taking present-getting for granted. How do we get them to be more gracious?

P.F., Oak Park

A. First of all, it's important to differentiate among your children in terms of age. It is too much to expect a 2-year-old to take a break from looking at a new toy to say a "proper" thank you. You can try saying, "Can you say 'thank you' to Aunt Anne?" as your 2-year-old is ripping the present from its wrapping. But if no response is forthcoming, tell Aunt Anne what a wonderful choice she made and how much your son will enjoy it. The 4- and 6-year-olds are more able to say thank you reliably, but, again, their focus will be on the present rather than on expressions of gratitude. One strategy is to wait until they have played with the new toy for a while, at which point they may have more emotional space to give heartfelt thanks. Again, if they fall a little short, fill in for them by remarking how much use they will get from the gift and what an inspired choice it was. As for the notes, we suggest that you make printed thank-you cards with each child's name on them. Then the child can "write" his name and/or draw a picture, which will seem easier and more fun than facing a blank page. The goal is not to make the child feel inadequate or criticized because he isn't old enough to engage in adult-style gratitude, but to praise him for his age-appropriate efforts.

Protecting your child's feelings from daddy's emotional distance

Q. I know you have answered a lot of questions about divorced families, but our situation is a little different. My ex-husband has remarried and has two new children. My ex never asks to have our 8-year-old daughter, he never keeps most of his scheduled visitations and he doesn't ever want her at Christmas. It seems as though his new family has wiped our daughter from his mind. She often asks why her father doesn't come for the visits and around Christmas she asks if she will be invited to spend time with him. When I tell her "no," she becomes very depressed. I have tried calling my ex to tell him that he is really hurting our daughter's feelings, and he says he will make more effort, but nothing really changes. I know this is very painful for my daughter, but I don't know what more I can do. Suggestions?

L.D., Wheaton

A. It is terribly sad when parents divorce their children as well as their spouses. No child could understand that a father (or mother) is unwilling to see her because the child is associated with a failed marriage. Children always and understandably feel there is something undesirable and unattractive about them that is keeping the parent from wanting to be with them. Given the depression your daughter is exhibiting, we think it might be advisable to seek the opinion of a mental health professional to see if your daughter might benefit from some psychotherapy. In the mean time, please emphasize to her that she is a wonderful child who deserves a father who would want to spend time with her and that you hope at some point her father will come to his senses. If you have men friends who would enjoy joining the two of you on outings and showering some positive attention on your daughter, that might help her as well.

Mom wants to know when 'No' should be used to keep kids safe

Q. I have read your Smart Love book and follow your column and I know that you don't recommend saying "No" to toddlers, but I don't know what to do when my 1½-year-old climbs on the furniture. He stands on the kitchen chairs and leans on the backs so that if we don't hold the chair he would go crashing to the floor. He bounces on his sister's bed and could fly off at any moment if we weren't standing there. He tries to walk on the arm of the couch. And on and on. When we tell him "No," he laughs. I even lost my temper once and slapped his hand, which I know wasn't right. He cried for a moment, but then went right back to what he was doing. My husband and I feel our son is completely out of control and don't know what to do next.

N.F., Chicago

A. The problem is that the nature of toddlers' minds is that they are unable to assess or even recognize danger. They are convinced they are all-powerful and invincible. That is why toddlers have to be constantly watched. There is no point in wasting your breath arguing or saying no to a toddler who is trying to engage in a risky behavior. If your son were mature enough to understand that he could be hurt, he wouldn't take the risks he takes. Saying "no" simply provokes him to "prove" to you that he is too powerful to be interfered with. When your son climbs on the furniture or goes to bounce on the bed, simply lift him up and find something more constructive for him to do. You will save yourself and him a lot of aggravation and you can be sure that by the time he is old enough to understand the effect that gravity can have on him, he will be more careful.


Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., are co-authors of the best-selling parenting book, Smart Love: The Compassionate Approach to Discipline that Makes You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person (for additional Smart Love resources visit The Piepers have spent more than three decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.


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