Over the years birthday parties have gotten a little, shall we say, out of control. What used to amount to a backyard party with cupcakes and balloons has blossomed into a full-on industry machine. Even if you’re not trying to keep up with (or outdo) the Joneses, there’s still a lot of pressure to create a magical event for your child, which not only puts stress on you, but creates a sense of entitlement for kids.

So how can we, as parents, maintain a sense of gratitude in our kids on a day that is not only focused solely on them, but also reaps a heaping pile of spoils? The answer isn’t as complicated as you might think.


Often times a first birthday party feels more like a celebration for the parents than the child. You made it through that initial, arduous year! You want to whoop it up! An elaborate theme that your little one doesn’t even fully comprehend may be involved. It’s possible you’re even thinking that your child is a bystander to the whole party process, unaware of how to express gratitude for a party and presents. But that’s where you’re wrong.

“Even very young children can understand the concept of being thankful for a gift,” says Katie Hurley, LCSW and author of The Happy Kid Handbook. “My kids scribbled pictures on thank-you notes that I wrote when they were toddlers and preschoolers, but by kindergarten they began writing their own short notes! Toddlers tend to tear through gifts without stopping to look at each one, and that’s developmentally appropriate. I generally recommend opening gifts post party for toddlers. When they play with or use a gift, remind them who gave it to them. ‘Hey, that picnic basket Papa gave you looks really fun!’ This helps young children make connections.”

Hurley encourages parents to model positive behavior to instill gratitude in littles, who are watching your every move.

“It might sound like old advice, but it stands the test of time for good reason,” she says. “When toddlers and preschoolers see their parents expressing gratitude for all things big and small, they internalize positive messages about being thankful. Express gratitude for your surroundings, for your family members and for the friends and neighbors who pitch in to help you. Being thankful out loud teaches young children to zoom out and think about the positives in their lives.”

School-Aged Children

By now your kids have this whole birthday thing down – it equals presents. So. Many. Presents. If you’ve opted to open up gifts during your child’s party, you’re likely sweating bullets over how he or she will react to anything that isn’t a toy, repeat gift or, frankly, anything they aren’t really interested in. Here’s another opportunity for a lesson in gratitude, and you can even make it into a party pre-game.

“It’s always best to give a quick gift opening 101 review before the party begins,” advises Hurley. “Teach kids to say the name of the giver, make eye contact and say one positive thing about the gift (even if it’s not what they wanted – this is important). Young children tend to be very literal and matter of fact. If they really wanted Shopkins but ended up with a new shirt, they might make an unhappy face or say, ‘I don’t want this!’ When we talk to kids about the thoughtfulness that goes into gift buying and the importance of the relationship between the giver and the recipient, they understand that gratitude is about the people in our lives, not the things those people give us.”

She suggests role playing a gifting session at some point before family and friends arrive. Wrap some random items from around the house in newspaper and ask your child to practice expressing his thanks by making positive comments about each one of the gifts.

Also, don’t be afraid to buck typical traditions. If your child doesn’t do so well in big social situations, narrow down her party to a smaller group of friends that she knows well. Depending on the area in which you live, inviting the entire class may be unavoidable, but feel out the situation before making your decision.

“Birthday parties have changed over time. Years ago, kids invited a few close friends for a backyard party,” says Hurley. “These days parties include entire classrooms, their siblings and their parents! There are bounce houses, cotton candy machines, face painters and more! One way to shift the focus from stuff to relationships is to dial back the pressure to throw the perfect party. A meaningful experience with a few close friends makes for a lifetime memory … no gifts necessary. Another option is to ask party goers to make a donation to a children’s charity instead of a gift or to donate a favorite book for a classroom library.”

Tweens & Teens

Life might feel a little (or a lot) rocky right now with your tween or teen as they navigate one of the more complex growing-up stages in life, but that doesn’t mean that deep down they aren’t thankful or, at the very least, can’t learn to be. Most importantly parents will want to teach them that it shouldn’t be about having exactly or more than what others do, but about cherishing a happy and fulfilling life. Admittedly this isn’t the easiest time to teach such a lesson but it can be done.

“Between peer pressure and working toward independence, tweens and teens look to others to assess their own needs,” says Hurley. “Be open and honest about differences. All families are different and all families do what they can. When parents are honest with their kids about finances and their own personal decisions, it removes some of the pressure within the family. Telling tweens and teens to be grateful rarely works, but doing community service projects as a family and talking about the concept of gratitude does.”

Again, here’s where modeling through your own gracious nature can really help your kids learn to do the same. They may not follow in your footsteps in all facets of life, but bringing up a child with gratefulness is a slam dunk win, both for you and your kid’s future. As Hurley points out, research shows that people who practice gratitude on a daily basis are more happy and successful than those who don’t. So while you may encounter some eye rolls and push back, keep modeling and providing the best example you can for your kids.

“Make the act of practicing gratitude part of the family’s daily routine,” she says. “Keep a family gratitude journal handy to add your thoughts at the beginning and end of each day. Place a gratitude jar on the kitchen counter and ask each family member to write down their grateful thoughts on slips of paper to be read at family dinner on Sunday. Be thankful.”

Kelly Bryant is associate editor of Boston Parents Paper.