How to Teach Children Gratitude

How to Raise Grateful Kids

How to Teach Children Gratitude

American society doesn’t encourage gratitude.

For proof, consider that mere hours after a feast celebrating thankfulness we are encouraged to go on a shopping spree rather than keep the feeling of gratitude going through the coming season.

And with toy ads and lists, teaching kids gratitude can certainly get muddled when they start to believe the world owes them. If that’s the case, what does a child need to feel grateful for?

Gratitude is a powerful antidote to the selfish messaging of American culture. It’s powerful because it’s viral and uplifting. Thankfulness is a prosocial emotion that can cement bonds in a community.

But teaching a kid gratitude can feel swimming against the stream. And the harsh truth about teaching those lessons is that, unless gratitude has a strong foundation in the parent, it ly won’t flourish in a kid.

Parents who give have thankful kids.

A ‘Spoiled Child’ Can Still Learn Gratitude

The concept of spoiling persists among adults who feel ingratitude and selfishness are a product of participation trophies and permissive parenting. The problem is that these adults also feel that parenting with austere attitudes towards affection, praise, and material goods will automatically build gratitude. That’s simply not true.

The term “spoiled child” is essentially short-form for a kind of kid who engages in selfish, bratty, and entitled behavior.

But the reason children act in a “spoiled” manner has nothing to do with how many toys or hugs they’ve received from their parents.

In fact, children who receive unconditional love and support from parents are often better behaved. They are less stressed and less ly to lash out.

Kids who are ungrateful get that way when parents reinforce the societal norm of selfishness. Spoiled, ungrateful parents, essentially, raise spoiled, ungrateful kids. Luckily, parents also have the power to change that selfishness and ingratitude by changing themselves.

For Kids to Be Grateful, Parents Must Model Gratitude

Interestingly, some of the most privileged kids can turn out to be the most thankful, grateful, and gracious. And those attitudes are largely a product of how parents have shown them to live in the world.

It’s important to note that telling a kid to be thankful doesn’t actually do anything. Kids learn by example.

Parents who live in a way that shows gratitude for what they have will foster gratitude in their child.

A parent who doesn’t walk through the world with a feeling of entitlement will ly raise a gracious kid. A parent who acknowledges the generosity of others will raise kids who are thankful.

Is that a tough pill for many parents to swallow? Yep.

Parents Should Show Gratitude to Their Children

Some parents feel that just because kids are kids, they don’t deserve thanks. That’s because many parents have an idea that children should simply do as parents say without question. But demanding unflinching obedience is not how you raise a grateful child, it’s how you raise a kid that will defer to anyone who they perceive to have the most power.

Saying thank you to a child can be really powerful. For one, if it’s said with sincerity and excitement, a child understands they’ve done something good, which reinforces their behavior. A “thanks” also helps kids build a foundation of empathy by learning to recognize gratitude in others. Finally, thank you implies they had a choice, and kids love choice.

Saying thank you may feel weird to some parents, but it’s important. It might help to consider that a child doesn’t have to put in the effort to do as a parent asks. And in fact, they often don’t. So saying thank you for the effort a child put in, against their selfish instincts, is totally appropriate.

Children Learn Gratitude in Charitable Families

One of the ways children develop a sense of gratitude is by fostering it in others. Children who grow up in a family that practices charity and spends time helping in their community will begin to recognize what gratitude looks .

This is a simple calculation. Learning is experiential. It’s not that children learn gratitude by giving things away, it’s that they begin to recognize gratitude in the faces, attitudes, words, and behavior of others. And, in seeing gratitude, they are able to build emotional intelligence and empathy and better show gratitude themselves.

Cultural Traditions Teach Children Gratitude

During holidays, when gratitude and thankfulness are expected, there’s little to be gained by telling a child to be grateful without context. It’s much easier, however, when there are cultural and religious traditions that pin gratitude to a larger message.

Children often view holidays as times of receiving. After all, that’s largely the message they hear from popular culture.

But when parents are able to give a child the “real” meaning of a holiday — celebrating togetherness, peace, charity, forgiveness — there is far less emphasis on receiving.

If a kid understands the important part of Thanksgiving is to be with family, they will ly be less ly to look for gifts when grandma rolls in, knowing the best gift is grandma being there at all.

Gratitude Is Great, but Kids Should Be Allowed to Feel Disappointed

It’s important for adults to remember that kids are kids. They do not have the full intellectual capacities that adults do. The part of their brain that helps them regulate emotion, in particular, isn’t well developed. So, they’ll get sad when they want a gift that doesn’t arrive.

There’s nothing wrong with disappointment. It’s natural. Kids should be able to express disappointment and have that disappointment acknowledged. A disappointed kid isn’t an ungrateful kid. They’re a human kid.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Kids Faking Thankfulness

It might take a while before kids develop a strong sense of gratitude. In fact, there are many many adults in the world who still haven’t grasped the concept. But that doesn’t mean they’re off the hook for showing their thanks. They can fake it. In fact, in many instances, they need to.

Parents will be doing their kids a solid by coaching them how to show gratitude even if they don’t feel it.

They may open an awful gift from grandma, but they should still understand why and how they need to say thank you to grandma.

And, as we know, when they see the happiness from grandma, the act of being thankful is being reinforced. So ultimately, faking the gratitude could easily turn into actual gratitude.

gratitude Harsh Truth Thank You Thanksgiving


What Parents Neglect to Teach about Gratitude

How to Teach Children Gratitude

Some parenting experiences are nearly universal. The wonder of an infant’s first smile. The excitement of a toddler’s first wobbly steps. And the pride in hearing these two words come your child’s mouth without you first having to nudge them along: “Thank you.”

But what does gratitude mean in children? Most early studies of children’s gratitude focus on acts of appreciation. For example, in one classic 1976 study, researchers made audio recordings of children on their Halloween rounds and found that 11- to 16-year-olds were four times more ly to say “thanks” for the candy than six-year-olds.

Today, psychologists studying gratitude note that being grateful means much more than just saying thank you.

Not only is the experience and expression of gratitude broader than thanking others but it requires children to use a set of complex socio-emotional skills.

For example, researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Greensboro argue that gratitude in children involves perspective taking and emotional knowledge, skills that children begin to develop more quickly around ages three to five.

In the Raising Grateful Children project at UNC Chapel Hill, we’ve explored gratitude experiences with families as their children have grown from kindergarteners to young teens. the scientific literature and our conversations with parents, we’ve come to think about gratitude as an experience that has four parts:

  • What we NOTICE in our lives for which we can be grateful
  • How we THINK about why we have been given those things
  • How we FEEL about the things we have been given
  • What we DO to express appreciation in turn

Older children and adults are more ly to spontaneously engage in all four parts of gratitude, but younger children may only engage in some of these parts, only when prompted. Children may show more gratitude as they gain cognitive skills, collect practice with those skills, and begin to connect the NOTICE-THINK-FEEL parts of experiencing gratitude with the DO part of expressing gratitude.

This model emphasizes that gratitude is about how we receive things in the world as well as how we give to others.

Indeed, when it comes to children, our team expects that helping them learn to deeply receive things in their lives will help engender genuine experiences of gratitude.

These experiences, in turn, may motivate the appreciative behaviors that parents want to see in their children.

How kids learn to give thanks

In addition, the four parts of gratitude give parents several options for how they can help their children learn about gratitude.

Over a ten-day period, we asked 100 parents to tell us how they had tried to foster gratitude in their six- to nine-year-old children on that day.

Some of these behaviors focused on how parents encourage their children to show gratitude, reminding them to say thank you or expressing thanks in ways that go beyond words.

The rest of the behaviors focused on what children noticed, thought about, or felt about things they received.

What we found is that parents, the first gratitude researchers, focused on what children DO to show gratitude. Most parents (85 percent) spurred their children to say thank you and show gratitude in ways consistent with good manners. A smaller portion (39 percent) encouraged children to show gratitude in ways that went beyond good manners.

About half of parents said they had pointed out to their children that they had received something (a NOTICE behavior). But even fewer parents asked children about how a gift made them feel (a FEEL behavior reported by only a third of parents) or why they thought someone had given them a gift (a THINK behavior reported by 22 percent of parents).

We think children may be understanding what is important about gratitude their parents’ behaviors. These behavioral messages may in turn shape how children show gratitude.

When parents reported on how often they saw the types of gratitude in their children using these same daily diaries, what children DO to show gratitude won out over what they NOTICE-THINK-FEEL.

Almost all parents reported that their children show well-mannered gratitude ( saying “thank you”) on any given day of the study, whereas only half said that their children show gratitude in ways that went beyond “good manners.

” Many parents (over 60 percent) said that their children NOTICE things in their lives for which they could be grateful or connect positive feelings to the experience of receiving. Less than half, however, reported that their children thought about the reasons why someone gave them a gift in a way that engenders gratitude.

Questions that foster gratitude

These findings suggest that there are opportunities for fostering gratitude in children that many parents have yet to tap. Finding ways to help children more deeply notice what they have received is an important place to start. But helping them make sense of those gifts, through their thoughts and feelings, may be key to experiences of gratitude more specifically. 

How can parents do that? By asking questions. Here are some examples of NOTICE-THINK-FEEL-DO questions parents may ask children about their gratitude experiences.

NOTICE: What have you been given or what do you already have in your life for which you are grateful? Are there gifts behind the material gifts for which you are grateful, someone thinking about you or caring about you enough to give you the gift?

THINK: Why do you think you received this gift? Do you think you owe the giver something in return? Do you think you earned the gift because of something you did yourself? Do you think the gift was something the giver had to give you? If you answered no to these questions, then you may be more ly to be grateful.

FEEL: Does it make you feel happy to get this gift? What does that feel inside? What about the gift makes you feel happy? These questions help the child connect their positive feeling to the gifts that they receive in their lives.

DO: Is there a way you want to show how you feel about this gift? Does the feeling you have about this gift make you want to share that feeling by giving something to someone else? Prompting children after experiences of gratitude in order to motivate acts of gratitude, whether they be acts of appreciation or paying it forward, may help children connect their experiences and actions in the world.

We think that these types of questions may help children to more deeply receive gifts from others or notice what they already have in the world. In turn, we think that deeply receiving may motivate acts of gratitude toward others. And that will give parents reasons to feel proud of children who not only say thank you unprompted but, more importantly, mean it.


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