When You Say 'Thank You,' Mean It: Q&A with Author Mary O'Donohue

Filed under: Books for Parents

when you say thank you mean it book

Credit: Adams Media

When Mary O'Donohue's son, Connor, was 5 years old, a friend of hers gave him a blue shirt as a gift. The boy was underwhelmed.

Sensing his lack of enthusiasm, O'Donohue prompted him with the old parental standby, "What do you saaay?" Connor forced the words "thank you" from his lips and went about his business. O'Donohue was mortified.

"It was an epiphany moment," she says. "I'm not teaching him to be grateful, I'm teaching him to act like he's grateful. That was a real big moment for me."

This experience led her to create exercises that would be fun, but would also teach her children to feel gratitude. She eventually turned the lessons into the book "When You Say "Thank You," Mean It ... And 11 Other Lessons for Instilling Lifelong Values in Your Children."

The book offers a year-long program full of hands-on activities, with each month focusing on a different value such as respect, compassion and integrity, without preaching.

The ideal age range for teaching kids gratitude is between ages 5 and 12, because after that, O'Donohue says, parents often get push-back from their kids. The suburban Chicago-based mom to Connor, now 14, and Grace, 9, recently spoke with ParentDish. An edited version of the conversation follows.

author mary o'donohue

Author Mary O'Donohue says monthly lessons can help kids learn gratitude. Credit: Margaret Smith

ParentDish: What do your kids think about these monthly lessons and exercises?
Mary O'Donohue: When it's "Sense of Purpose Month," my kids love the question of the day. It's my daughter's favorite month of the year. They find out interesting things about themselves. I asked them recently, "If you woke up tomorrow and went to your dream school, what would it be like?" My daughter thought about it for a moment and told me it would be all about art. I had no idea that art was that important to her.

PD: Do the exercises really take just five minutes a day?
It's so quick. I have 12 different families who participated (for the book) and I had a few moms who said, "Oh, I don't know if I have time for this." And I'd say, "Just give it a chance." And, universally, all the moms who said that came back to me after they'd done their month with their family and said, "Oh, gosh. This took up no time. It was so much less than I thought."

PD: How do you get your child to say, "I'm sorry" -- and mean it -- after he or she pushes another kid on the playground?
I would say to my kid, "I think you owe that child an apology when you're ready to be sorry." And I would turn to the parent and say, "I'm really sorry that my child did this. I have a policy with my child that they do not apologize insincerely. The last thing I want my child to do is give your child an insincere apology. So, I'm sorry he did that and I hope he will get to the point where he says he's sorry, but I would rather have him say it for real."

PD: Do you have any suggestions on how to get your child to write a thank you note?
I make sure the children understand what it's like to be appreciated. Let them know. "I really appreciated when you helped Mom with the dishes." "You put your books away, thank you. I really appreciated that." Make them feel appreciated so that they have a concept in their brain of what it really feels like to be genuinely thanked, so they get that connection.

PD: Then what?
After that, I let them play with the toys. I want them to experience this wonderful gift they've been given. I let them know that these people who love them, that gave them these gifts, get to feel the same appreciation they felt. Because it's a wonderful feeling. I'll say to my child, "Go play the video game. I'll play with you." We can take a picture of us playing the video game, we can do an interview about it, a funny little video, you can create an art project, you can do whatever you want. It's my sense that they do better when it comes from their heart.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.