Children are born needy. Before they can do much else, they make their needs known with their wails and tears. “Do this for me, do that for me, do more for me,” they communicate, even without words. It would be nice if a baby would turn to its mother within minutes of entering this world and say something like “Thank you so much for going through all that just to bring me into the world!” But no, it’s “Give me this, and give me that, and do it right away or I’ll scream my heart out!”

Things don’t get much better over the next few years. Children are born needy“MOMMY!” is a regularly heard shriek, and it means, “Come here, fix this, fix that, help me with this and help me with that, bring me this and bring me that.” Toddlers and preschoolers sit like little kings and queens, issuing commands from their booster seats: “Water!” “Juice!” “Cookie!” Of course, by this time, parents are at least trying to civilize the tots. For a few years, the conversation sounds like this:

Child: “Water.”

Parent: “Say please.”

Child: “Please, can you get me water?”

Parent: “Sure. You asked so nicely.”

And then the parent runs off dutifully to serve the child, hoping that the first two steps of the conversation will soon be omitted. However, what is more likely to happen in the subsequent years is this:

School-aged child: “I need water.”

Parent: “Mommy, could you please get me some water?”

School-aged child: “Could you please get me some water?”

Parent: “Sure.”

And then the parent runs off dutifully to serve the child, hoping that the first two steps of the conversation will eventually sound like this:

Teenager: “I’m getting water. Would anyone else like a cup?”

Now, the truth is that hope is not enough to achieve this result. A child must actually be trained to think of others. Whereas needs are inborn—and no education is required to teach children to ask for their needs—giving is quite different. Even those born with a naturally generous disposition still require training in how to give appropriately. Modeling is not enough. For example, when a mother routinely offers to bring water for her children, the children don’t necessarily learn how to offer to bring water. (What they might very well learn is how to sit and receive water!) Indeed, parents who give, give, give often end up with children who take, take, take. Children don’t learn to be givers just by watching their parents give; they also need to practice giving themselves.

The lesson in giving begins well before the teen years. G‑d gives us the curriculum: We are to teach children to respect their parents according to the Torah’s laws of honoring parents. These laws mandate behaviors that inculcate certain character traits. For instance, the law that a child must ask a parent, rather than tell, inculcates a sense of respect and the corresponding trait of humility. The laws about serving parents also train a child to adopt an attitude of giving. The law that a child must wait to eat until his parents start eating inculcates sensitivity to the parents’ G‑d gives the curriculumfeelings, as well as appreciation for his parents. After all, shouldn’t the one who slaved over a stove for several hours sit down and eat before the others jump in? It happens all too often that the family has finished eating even before the one who cooked and served has had a chance to begin!

One who raises children according to these Torah precepts will find it natural to encourage able-bodied, competent children who can reach the sink to get their own water rather than asking their mother, who has finally sat down, to get up again and serve them. Here is where a child first learns that Mom is a person rather than a personal slave. “Sweetie, I just sat down. Please go to the sink and get the water, and find out if anyone else at the table needs some.” Mom has to teach this. If she drags her exhausted body to the sink for a 10-year-old who can run races around her, she is encouraging narcissism in her child!

But even more simple than all of this is the necessity to teach children how to show appreciation. And this lesson takes place as soon as little ones can speak. Although we talk a lot about teaching children to say “please” and “thank you,” in actuality many conversations end as shown above, with the parent doing something for the child. The second step—teaching the child to say “thank you”—is often omitted. The water has been delivered and Mom is sitting down again. Since childrearing isn’t about serving water, but rather about building character, it is essential to use everyday opportunities to foster traits consistent with Torah values.

Gratitude is an essential trait from the Torah point of view. As we read in the Torah portion of Va’eira,1 Moses’ brother, Aaron, rather than Moses himself, was called upon to turn the water of the Nile into blood, because the water had been the source of salvation for Moses when he was placed in it as an infant. Even though the water had “performed” this kindness passively, it was essential that Moses honor it and not cause it harm.

Similarly, the Talmud advises, “If you drank water from a well, do not throw stones in it.”2 Again, we are taught to be sensitive to anyone, and even anything, that does something for us. Gratitude doesn’t come naturallySurely, children must be taught to access and express feelings of gratitude to their parents, who intentionally, with their full hearts, do everything possible for them! And yet, this gratitude doesn’t come naturally; it must be taught.

Parent: “Here’s your water.”

Child: “Glub, glub.” (Drinks the water.)

Parent: “Excuse me. I think you’ve forgotten something. What do you say to Mommy for bringing the water?”

Child: “Thank you, Mommy.”

Parent: “You’re welcome!”

Although parents may feel awkward about insisting that their child thank them, they need to remember that this thanking is not for their own sake, but for the child’s sake. With two decades of practice, and the gratitude wiring firmly established in her brain, a child leaves her home with the quality of gratitude. This trait will bring her success in every endeavor, because G‑d rewards gratitude with blessing. The habit of gratitude will also facilitate positive relationships, because expressing gratitude brings out the best in everyone.

So go that extra mile and complete the gratitude lesson every time. One day, your children will thank you.