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How Can We Teach Gratitude Early in Life?

Every day we’re reminded how important it is to teach gratefulness to our kids. From the entitled teen who insists on having the next cool thing that “all” his peers have to the 4-year-old throwing a tantrum in Toys R’ Us (admit it, we’ve all been there), we remember that being grateful is an important skill that every child needs to learn. We didn’t realize just how important it is, however, until recently.

After seven years of studying the development and enhancement of gratitude in children and adolescents, my colleagues and I are discovering that the benefits are far more reaching than we realized. For example, children who exhibit high levels of gratitude are less materialistic, have better relationships and earn higher grades. Additionally, they are less likely to engage in risky or dangerous behavior—even into their teen years!

With scientific evidence showing us just how important it is to teach gratitude, many parents are wondering how to incorporate that into their busy lives. In our book, “Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character” (Templeton Press) we share 32 research-backed strategies for practically teaching gratitude in everyday interactions. In this essay I’ll first present five practices you should do to make your kids more grateful, and then I’ll present five practices you should not do to make your kids more grateful.

Five Practices for Helping Gratitude Enhancement in Kids

1. Be What You Want Your Child to Be: Model thanking and giving for children. For example, make sure your kids see your appreciation and suffocating bear hug when your spouse does something kind for you. Further, encourage your child to thank, give, and be thoughtful toward friends. This could simply mean encouraging your child to share a snack with a friend or invite a lonely child to play with them.

2. Help Children Recognize the Value of Gifts: Encourage children to recognize the good intentions and sacrifice behind the benefits and acts of kindness they receive from others and the personal value of each gift. People who really see the personal value of gifts, the altruistic intentions of benefactors, and the cost to benefactors for providing those gifts are more grateful and happier than others—and kids are no exception. Help your children frame the kindnesses they receive in these terms. As our research shows, teaching children when they’re young how to think gratefully helps grateful processing become a natural habit. But in the meanwhile, it also makes for some fun and memorable conversations with your child.

3. Count your blessings. Our research has found that students who counted their blessings became more grateful, optimistic, satisfied with their lives and experienced fewer negative feelings. Have children keep a gratitude journal or ask them about their blessings of the day or week. When children are thinking of blessings and who was responsible for good things that happened to them, they can have more thoughtful prayers and thank God for having such great people in their lives. For example, during family prayer time my 3-year-old daughter, Julianne, recently thanked God for her uncle Kevin because “I love him so much.” Even during mealtime, help them pray for the people responsible for the food on the table. Our longitudinal data show that children who say grace during meals have developed more gratitude than their peers.

4. Limit Media Exposure and Materialism: Though letting your child watch yet another episode of Team Umizoomi makes it easier for you to work while you’re stuck inside on a snow day, it’s a poor use of your child’s time if your goal is to make them more grateful. Substitute idle TV time with creative acts for connecting positively with others. For example, encourage your preschooler to draw pictures for their teacher and create thank you notes for those who have shown them kindness.

While as parents we love giving our children nice things, it need not be extravagant. Instead, limit materialism and encourage your children to give to others. Gifts should come from your child’s heart—not necessarily your wallet!—and show that your child was responsive to a recipient’s needs. So when you learn that your child’s friend lost her favorite book mark, encourage your child to make one that’s customized to their friend’s interests.

5. Counter Complaining:  Because our society is so appearance driven, it’s incredibly important for parents to counter complaints by helping children appreciate the good in their lives. Much of our happiness is determined by the social comparisons we make. When we compare ourselves to people we think of as better than us, we feel deprived. When we compare ourselves to people who are less fortunate than us, we feel grateful. When your child focuses on those who they feel have it better than them, remind them of those who are less fortunate. Recognizing that there are those less fortunate than them helps build empathy, gratitude, and appreciation.

We know raising grateful children is important because we know what the absence of gratitude looks like—entitled teens who sue their parents for tuition or spoiled pop stars giving an attitude to authorities. I can’t think of any parent who wouldn’t want their kid to reap the benefit of being grateful. But many parents are unintentionally teaching ungratefulness to their kids. Here are five things you must avoid if you want to instill gratitude in your children.

Five Practices for Hurting Gratitude Enhancement in Kids

1. Allowing Unlimited Media Exposure: Like it or not, media influences our children’s development, especially their independence, sense of right and wrong, and authenticity. Children’s lack of real-world knowledge puts them at a disadvantage for evaluating the truthfulness of media messages. Media is also more commercial than ever, encouraging sensation-seeking and immediate gratification over more purposeful discovery and self-discipline. Limiting a child’s screen time is straightforward: tell them how much TV they can watch and how much game time they can have, and mean it. Reduce your child’s consumption habits by having your child follow up on media activity with a visit to the park or reading time.

2. Focusing on Materialism: Children take their cues from you. If you’re putting emphasis on material things, that is what they’ll learn is important. Instead of focusing on keeping up with the Joneses, help you kids learn that materialism only brings a temporary, empty satisfaction.

Materialism makes a child’s sense of happiness dependent on acquiring things, being popular, or conveying the right image. Put materialism and gratitude in perspective by focusing your priorities on the quality of experiences in your daily life and your family’s. Encourage your children to give back by volunteering at local nonprofits or even something less ambitious such as helping a neighbor shovel snow off of their driveway. Not only will this give your child a sense of fulfillment, but seeing others in need and helping them will teach your child to be grateful for their blessings and appreciate that they’re part of a larger community.

3. Missing the Small Moments: Teaching kids to “savor the moment” will help them learn gratitude and keep materialism at bay. Savoring is the capacity to appreciate and enhance the positive experiences in our lives. Savoring not only helps stretch the happiness we experience and maintain contentment, it helps strengthen bonds and create sweeter memories.

Emphasize the value of your experiences as a family by reviewing old photo albums and telling favorite stories from vacations. By savoring what you already have, you discover your child’s unique character, stay mindful of your blessings, and learn to be grateful in any situation.

4. Letting Your Child out of Personal Responsibility: Studies show that for people to feel grateful for the help they receive, they must feel personal responsibility for their behaviors. All parents want their children to do well on tasks and assignments. But if you do it for them and don’t let them take responsibility for their behaviors, they won’t learn to truly appreciate the personal value of achievements or good outcomes in life and this will limit their capacity to experience gratitude toward those who helped them or contributed to their welfare.

For this reason, it’s important to make them work for their achievements. Let them take the lead in planning their science project, and they’ll feel more pride for the final product and more grateful for your help. Furthermore, allow your child to experience the consequences of their actions, so they’ll learn to grow from their mistakes and eventually make wise choices.

5. Neglecting Yourself: Teaching gratitude requires making the most of everyday interactions with your child which, in turn, requires you to be present with them. If you’re overly stressed from work or exhausted from a long trip, take time to recharge yourself so you can make the most of the time you spend with your child. Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish. If anything, it’s other-centered because it helps you rejuvenate yourself so you can stay committed to the things that matter in your life, like making your child grateful!

Discussion Questions:

1. Why is teaching kids how to be grateful more important than ever in today’s world?

2. How might the amount of electronic exposure kids get today affect their gratitude development, and what can parents do to combat it?

3. What are some contemporary obstacles for parents trying to instill gratitude in their kids, and what can parents do about it?

Discussion Summary

The discussion following my essay on making grateful kids hit upon some popular questions. Is it ever too late to teach kids gratitude? Should teaching kids gratitude be prioritized over other virtues? Is gratitude more than a politeness routine? How important is the parent-child bond for making kids grateful? How do materialism and generosity affect kid’s gratitude? Surprisingly, we didn’t discuss the source of our gratitude: God.  

The concept of being grateful and giving thanks to God is common to Christians. Themes of thanks, blessings, and thanksgiving are found throughout the Bible.

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)

Scripture is very clear about the lifestyle we should lead. Yet when faced with the daily trials and temptations, cultural status quos, time pressures and other stressors, it’s easy to forget about this and to feel jealous, envious, selfish, greedy, and, well…ungrateful. Given the frequency that thankfulness is discussed in the Bible and our desire to thank God for His blessing and sending His Son to die for our sins, we can agree that thankfulness and gratitude are worthwhile goals for families. But can gratitude for God and His grace help make kids grateful?

We recently followed over 700 early adolescents for 4-years tracking their gratitude development, well-being, risk-taking behaviors, self-control, and religious practices, among other variables.  Preliminary analyses indicate that teens who regularly say grace with their families were more likely to increase in gratitude during the 4-years; perhaps saying grace helped the teens slow down and take inventory of the blessings in their lives, thus making them more grateful. This relation, however, is correlational. So it’s just as likely that teens who became more grateful during the 4-years started saying grace more frequently with their families; perhaps becoming more grateful made teens more aware of God’s influence in their lives, and saying grace helped them recognize it and express thanks.

Growing up, my family and I didn’t attend church regularly, nor did we volunteer there. And forget about having deep, meaningful conversations about God’s role in creating everything we know and giving us everything we had. This isn’t to say that I was an entitled brat; I’d like to think I had some sense of appreciation. But I definitely didn’t know that God was the source for all of my good fortune, nor did I appreciate that I was a part of His plan or that He gave me my health (I had severe oxygen deprivation when I was born, and the doctors told my parents that I would likely be blind, deaf, severely mentally handicapped, or even die). If asked “Got God?,” I would’ve said, “No.”

By contrast, my wife and I consistently tell our kids that we live such a privileged life because God continues to fill our lives with His love and grace. To illustrate, we attend church weekly and volunteer together. At night, we also pray as a family, and my wife and I always include prayers of thanksgiving. Recently, my wife said, “Thank you God for my wonderful family. I’m so very blessed to have them in my life; I love them very much.” I, too, am very heavy on prayers of thanksgiving. That same night I thanked God for helping my son’s finger heal after surgery.

Hearing such prayers regularly, my kid’s prayer life has become enriched, thus has their relationship with Jesus and God. For example, beyond praying for someone, which was their typical prayer, my children now always include at least one prayer of thanksgiving. My son, James, might thank God for helping him do well on an exam in school, and my daughter, Julianne, might thank God for her Uncle Kevin. Regardless of what they thank God for, expressing gratitude to Him is now standard.

While my colleagues and I are still trying to unpack the relation between gratitude and religious practices, such as saying grace, I think it’s safe to say that the two are connected. Thus, parents looking to make their kids more grateful should consider saying grace together regularly. Worst case scenario saying grace doesn’t make their kids more grateful; but it will make God feel loved and appreciated. And that’s a good thing.

Big Questions

  1. Do prayers of thanksgiving to God and Jesus cause kids to become more grateful? If so, what’s the best frequency? And how long will the effects last?
  2. What are the developmental precursors to benefit-triggered gratitude (e.g., a child receives candy from a friend) and transpersonal gratitude (e.g., being grateful to God for life)? What factors enhance these precursors? What factors inhibit these precursors?