How to Teach Your Child to be Grateful

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“Gratitude turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.  It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.  It makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”  Melody Beattie

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Overall, my kids are pretty sweet.  They say, “thank you,” enjoy helping me around the house, and express their utter joy and excitement at new experiences and gifts.  However, especially with the events surrounding the holidays, I’ve had a few (or more) moments lately where I have asked myself why my children are so ungrateful.
  • As we navigate the aisles at Target, and they are whining incessantly about why I won’t buy them the toys (or any other item) that catches their eyes.
  • When they break an item in our house, shrug their shoulders and tell me to “just buy another one on Amazon.”  Clearly my addiction to Amazon is having a positive impact on the kids(!).
  • While Mr. Track Suit tells me writing thank you notes to his friends is too hard!
  • When my kids refuse to eat the dinner I made.

It’s easy to become frustrated or be hard on myself.  I worry I’m not modeling gratitude enough, or that I’m not teaching them to be grateful.  But, I also stop and remind myself that my kids are 5 and 2.   They are still so little.  They are learning millions of things all at once, which must be so much for a little brain to handle!  And, their brains aren’t mature.

So, I asked myself, how much should I really expect from my kids when it comes to gratitude at this age, and how can I teach it to them?

 
Before I began writing this post on ways to teach our children to be grateful, I researched, read, and researched some more.  I wanted the best, most up-to-date information on the most effective way to teach our children and to foster this important life-altering skill.  Interestingly enough, the study of gratitude in children is in its infancy.  But, in recent years, a greater number of studies have focused on the importance of teaching our children to be grateful.

 

WHY should we teach our kids to be grateful?

 

The research we do have on adults, adolescents, and children shows that gratitude leads to an array of benefits for our own health and for society as a whole.  Gratitude
  1. reduces a multitude of negative emotions and in general makes us happier.   Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D. has conducted several studies on the link between gratitude and psychological well-being.  His research suggests that people who are more grateful tend to be happier and less depressed.  Other studies have shown youth who are more grateful are more satisfied with their direction in life and are more hopeful.  Studies by Giacomo Bono show it gives you higher self-esteem and reduces social comparisons.
  2. improves pro-social behaviors.  A study by DeWall, et al. (2012) at the University of Kentucky suggests that youth and adults who are grateful are less likely to be aggressive or to participate in “delinquent” behaviors.
  3. enhances our relationships with others and ourselves.  Children who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and their families (Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2008).  Gratitude tends to reinforce positive behaviors, and those kindnesses we do for others tend to be reciprocated.  Therefore, gratitude could be a major key to a positive functioning society.  It allows us to work together and rely on each other.
  4. helps us attain our goals.  In a study by Emmons and McCullough (2003), people who kept lists of what they were grateful for made further gains on their goals (academic achievement, health goals, or social goals) than those who did not.
  5.  increases our mental strength.  In 2003 Fredrickson, et.al studied people post-911 and found that gratitude seemed to promote growth and resilience after a crisis and helped contain depressive feelings.
  6. may be associated with better physical health.  Grateful people tend to experience less physical pain, take better care of themselves, and in general feel healthier (Emmons and McCullough 2003)

 

WHEN can we teach gratitude to children?

 

A recent study suggests that children who have a greater knowledge of emotions at age 3 tend to have a better understanding of state of mind at age 4 (Nelson, et al., 2013).  Understanding of emotions and mental states both appear to be precursors to the concept of gratitude.  Theory of mind (understanding that others have thoughts unique from our own) develops sometime between 4-5, and perspective-taking (taking another person’s point of view) develops over childhood.

 

If we think about it, we can only experience true gratitude if we understand
  1. that someone else had to make a conscious decision and put in effort to give us something.
  2. why we were given those things.
  3. the feelings of both the person who did the giving and the person who received the “gift.”
  4. the desire to give back to (repay) someone as a result.

 

Gratitude really is NOT about “stuff.”  It is about relationships, emotion, and being able to appreciate the past, the present, and the future.  Because these are relatively complex skills that develop throughout childhood, we can’t expect our very young children to understand gratitude and appreciate others’ actions in the way we do as adults.  We certainly can’t expect our 2-3 year olds to feel grateful in the same way we do.  They may know they need to say thank you, but not necessarily why we are saying it.  They may be able to list items or people they are thankful for, but may not be until 4-5 that they can understand that we can be thankful for intangible things like love and kindness.

 

Can we teach gratitude to very small children?

Yes!  From birth, we can (and should) practice, model, and encourage gratitude in our children, with the understanding that we will need to start simple, then scaffold and build on skills over the years.

 

HOW do we teach our children to be grateful?

 

One important note is that, as parents, we tend to think of gratitude as being what the child shows or does (e.g., “saying thank you.”), and we tend to largely neglect the other critical pieces of gratitude.  Gratitude really consists of 4 MAJOR PARTS.  According to Andrea Hussong (2015), these are the four major areas we need to think about when teaching our kids to be grateful:
  1. Noticing what in our lives we can be grateful for.
  2. Thinking about why we have those things.
  3. Feelings about these things.
  4. Expressing the appreciation we have (what we do).
how to teach gratitude without leaving out important steps
 
grateful kids

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A book I recently read called, Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character by Jeffrey Froh and Giacomo Bono, they suggest 32 ways in which we can foster the development of gratitude, all based on their recent research.  It was fascinating to note that almost every aspect of raising a positive, well-adjusted, and happy child can in some way be linked to or associated with gratitude.

 

Taking all of this research into consideration, I put together a list of activities to use at all ages to help teach your children to be grateful and encourage the development of that skill as they grow.

 

how to teach your children to be grateful, gratitude activities

 

15 ways to teach your child to be grateful:

  1. Read books and talk about what is happening in the pictures.  This gives us so many opportunities to talk about emotions, discuss complex social nuances, develop language, etc.
  2. With very young children, talk about emotions.
    • Practice identifying emotions in themselves in real time.
    • Practice identifying emotions in others in real time.
    • Talk about emotions as you read books.
    • Give them the vocabulary to describe emotions.
  3. Practice mindfulness with your children.  Teach them to pay attention to sights, sounds, smells, and perspectives in the world around them and also within themselves.  Then, have open discussions about them.
    • Get ideas for mindfulness activities here.
  4. Do a gratitude scavenger hunt.  Find things you are grateful for in different categories.
    • For a FREE gratitude scavenger hunt printable and additional free resources, click here.
  5. Do community service and regular acts of kindness with your children.
    • When you do service for others, you become more ingrained in your community, you learn about others’ struggles, you see others being grateful, and also are more grateful for what you have.
    • Your children will begin to discover that being kind and doing things for others often not only makes them feel good but is also reciprocated.  Therefore, it leads to MORE gratitude and better/stronger relationships.
  6. Talk about your “top three experiences of the day.”  Discuss them right before bed.  This reminds us to savor our positive experiences and ends our day on a happy and grateful note.
  7. Have thankful family dinners. Each person states what they are thankful for.
  8. Keep a gratitude journal that not only identifies what your children are grateful for, but also encourages them to think about who/what is responsible for those things, how others felt when they worked hard to get us those things, and how we feel upon receiving them.
  9. When planning a party or playdate, have your child plan it with you, taking into consideration other people’s likes, needs, and thoughts.
  10. When your children receive a gift or help, talk about why they received it, who gave it to them, and the feelings on both ends.
  11. Express appreciation. Do a thoughtful thank you activity, such as writing thank you notes together.
    • Don’t just say, “Thank you for ___.”
    • Add in what your child likes about the gift.
    • Include what he or she appreciates about the person who gave it.
    • Practice thanking people not just for the THINGS your children have but for WHAT PEOPLE HAVE DONE for them (e.g., helping them meet goals, making them dinner, planning an activity, coaching them, etc.).
    • Get access to the pdf file for printable Fill-in-the-Blank Thank You Cards for kids here!
  12. Identify your children’s strengths and interests and use them as an outlet to foster gratitude.  Using your children’s strengths not only makes it more likely that they will enjoy and continue to participate, it also allows them some autonomy, and it gives them a sense of pride in an accomplishment.
    • For example, if your child loves sports, maybe he or she volunteers at a sporting event.
    • If your child is very outgoing and empathetic, take him/her to a memory care facility to spend time with the residents.
    • When your child is successful in an activity he/she loves, spend time talking about how it feels, discuss why he/she feels that way, and savor those moments.
  13. Foster authenticity:  Teaching your children to love themselves just as they are is key to having gratitude.  If they are comfortable in their own skin, they can appreciate themselves and their lives, and be fulfilled with what they have (rather than what they wish they had or wish they were).  They will also be less likely to compare themselves to others.
    • Start by talking about what you love most about your children that makes them unique.
    • It’s important to stop, enjoy, and celebrate that they are their own people with their own (often brilliant and creative) ideas and ways of doing things. (More on authenticity coming soon!).
  14. Practice saying “no” to the unnecessary.  This helps children differentiate between wants and needs.   Saying no to items we really don’t need makes the times we can say “yes” that much sweeter!
  15. Be a good model of gratitude.
    • Point out the things you are grateful for.
    • Talk out loud about why we have those things, who is responsible, what sacrifices might have been made to have those experiences.
    • Express clearly to your children how these things make you feel.
    • Thank others around you so your kids see it in practice often.
    • Thank your children often, even for the things they SHOULD do.  It reinforces the good behavior, but it also models gratitude.

 

In conclusion…

 

We can help our children be gracious and kind!  The fact that you read this very detailed post and made it through to the end is evidence you are striving to teach them.  During the holidays it becomes particularly hard, but I would say the number one thing this time of year is to underplay the gifts.  Instead, make a big deal about the people we love, doing acts of kindness for others, and giving as much as we can.  

 

Hug those little helpers close and thank them often.

 

Much love,

 

References:
1.  American Psychological Association. (2012, August). Growing Up Grateful Gives Teens Multiple Mental Health Benefits, New Research Shows.  
2.  DeWall, C. N., Lambert, N. M., Pond, R. S., Kashdan, T. B., & Fincham, F. D. (2012). A grateful heart is a non-violent heart: Cross-sectional, longitudinal, experience-sampling, and experimental evidence.Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 232-240.
3.  Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389.
4.  Fredrickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. R. (2003). What good are positive emotions in crisis? A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 365-376.
5.  Froh, Jeffrey & Bono, Giacomo. Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character. Templeton Press, 2014. Print.
6.  Froh, J.J., Sefick, W.J., & Emmons, R.A. (2008).  Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being.Journal of School Psychology, 46, 213–233.
7.  Hill, Patrick, L,  Allemand, Mathias, & Roberts, Brent W. (2013).  Examining the Pathways between Gratitude and Self-Rated Physical Health across Adulthood.Personality and Individual Differences, 54(1): 92–96.
8.  Hussong, A. (2017, November). What Parents Neglect to Teach about Gratitude.  
9.  Layous, K, & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). Benefits, mechanisms, and new directions for teaching gratitude to children.School Psychology Review, 43(2), 153-159.
10.  Nelson, J.A., Freitas, L.B.L., O’Brien, M., Calkins, S.D., Leerkes, E.M., & Marcovitch, S. (2013). Preschool-aged children’s understanding of gratitude: Relations with emotion and mental state knowledge.Br Journal of Developmental Psychology. 31(1), 42-56.
11.  The website Greater Good Magazine has a ton of great information on teaching gratitude to your kids!

 

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