Teaching your child to say “thank you” can feel like living the movie Groundhog Day. You know the one where Bill Murray wakes up every morning and it’s the same day? "Thank you" is kind of like that. You urge your child to say it multiple times a day, time and time again, waiting for that one day when she will say it herself, all by herself, without a prompt.

Take heart, dear parent. The fact that your child doesn't express his gratitude may have more to do with development than it does with lack of manners. Children have difficulty saying thank you because at a young age, they don’t realize how their behavior affects other people. They are completely preoccupied with the present, living only in the moment, and failing to recognize or predict future pleasure. An inability to talk about feelings and an underdeveloped sense of empathy also contribute to a child’s difficulty giving thanks.

In the book, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, authors Laura Davis and Janis Keyser offer ways to help teach manners in a way even the youngest children can understand:

  • First, talk about your family customs with your children. If you don’t have any, start developing some. Say to your child, “In our family, we always say thank you when someone gives us a gift.” Repeating your own traditions will help your child understand that he is a part of a larger group that behaves a certain way.
  • Model the skills you want to teach. You know that old saying, “do as I say, not as I do?” Well, not here my friend. You want them to do as you do, so you need to do it right. Remember to say “thank you” to people in your life so your children hear you using the phrase. The more they see and hear you thanking people for their kindness, the more likely it is that your children will pattern that behavior.
  • Show, don't tell. According to Marleen Didech, a parent educator and coach in San Jose, California, “Parents have to teach thankfulness through the way they live their lives. That’s where it starts. Children can demonstrate empathy at an early age if they are shown a model.”
  • Give your child information and make your expectations clear. Tell him “Your Dad spent a lot of time fixing your bike; it would make him happy to hear you thank him for it.” If she starts to learn that other people’s feelings are being affected by her behavior, she will be more likely to show kindness of spirit. Let her know what you expect. For example, tell her “We’re not leaving Noah’s house until you find a way to say thank you.”
  • Give your child choices as to how she would like to say “thank you.” Rather than nagging her again for not saying it, ask her if she’d like to sing Uncle Roger a "thank you" song, or paint him a "thank you" picture. Kids love to make their own choices and if it’s fun, they may come up with a "thank you" idea all on their own.

When you support the development of empathy in your child, you are giving her the gift of good manners. Believe it or not, they will start to flow out of her naturally. And don’t limit yourself to teaching kids to be thankful only for material things. Didech even suggests that you “make a list of things together that you are grateful for in life. It can be as simple as ‘I’m thankful that the sun is out.’ You have to plant the seeds early on and most importantly, you have to walk the walk.”

Giving back to your community is another great way to teach gratitude. By seeing others less fortunate, children will begin to learn to appreciate what they have. And one day, right out of the blue, your child will give you a beautiful “thank you” and truly mean it.