One morning when my son was three, we ordered drinks at our local coffee shop. As he carefully took his mug full of steamed milk from the barista, I said “thank you” to her. She gazed at him with the look I’m sure all parents are familiar with: the look that is an adult saying to their child, “I’m waiting for you to thank me.” As she continued to watch him, he turned and slowly made his way over to the couch where we would sit, walking steadily and slowly so as not to spill his drink. I turned back to her and said, by way of explanation, “I don’t want to make him to say thank you before he knows what that means.” 

“Well, it’s a good thing to learn to say, whether you mean it or not,” she said. I noted that the two of us were just going to have to agree to disagree on this point, and I continued to say my son’s “thank you’s” for him each morning.

Of course, my yearning was to raise a child who was both polite and grateful, but somehow I knew that those qualities would come in time … and that pushing him to say “thank you” for the benefit of others, before he even knew what those words really meant, wasn’t the path that would lead us to the realization of that yearning.

Over the years, as my son’s heart stayed soft and his ability to hold mixed feelings grew, he began to express authentic gratitude. The soft heart was protected by his deep attachments with me and my husband; the ability to hold multiple thoughts at once (such as: I am excited to drink this warm steamer and I am grateful that the barista just prepared it for me) grew along with his brain developed. 

These days, my heart warms when I overhear my sons thanking each other for things: “thank you for bringing me a glass of water,” or, “thanks for helping me with my homework.” The other day, the woman who works at the sample table of our local grocery store sought me out in the produce section to tell me that my boys were the sweetest and most polite boys she’d interacted with all day. And, she emphasized, because they were sampling chocolate bars: she’d interacted with a lot of kids on that day. So, I think we’re all good in the raising kids who are (authentically) polite and grateful department…

This Thanksgiving season, one thing I am grateful for is that I trusted development to bring my boys to the place where they feel true gratitude. I am so thankful that I didn’t push them to say “thank you” to please adults as that would have rendered those very special words devoid of their heartfelt meaning.