Every day we are reminded how important it is to teach gratefulness to kids. From the entitled teen who insists on having the next cool thing that “all” his peers have to the four-year-old throwing a tantrum in Toys R’ Us for yet another Mickey Mouse doll, we remember that being grateful is an important skill that every child must learn. Only now, however, are we realizing just how important it really is.
After seven years of studying the development and enhancement of gratitude in children and adolescents, my colleagues Giacomo Bono, Robert Emmons, and I are discovering that the benefits reach even farther than we first thought. For example, children who exhibit high levels of gratitude are less materialistic, have better relationships, earn higher grades, and are more spiritual. 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, educators, youth workers, and clergy are wondering how to incorporate that into their busy lives, classrooms, or programs. In our book, Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character,” Giacomo Bono and I share 32 scientifically supported, practical strategies for teaching gratitude to youth in everyday interactions. Here are just five ways to help make kids grateful:
1. Be what you want the 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. Or, if you’re a teacher, tell your students about the coffee you left for the janitor because he went above and beyond by putting your room back together just right after your classroom party. Further, encourage children to thank, give, and be thoughtful toward friends. This could simply mean encouraging a child to share a snack with a friend or invite a lonely child to play with them.
The name of the game is consistency. If a child sees you regularly expressing gratitude for the goodness in your life, chances are he will do the same. Not only am I a gratitude researcher, but gratitude is also my top character strength. I therefore walk around with a life orientation that abundance and good fortune surround me. I acknowledge that God has been very gracious in giving me numerous blessings, and I don’t keep my gratitude toward God or other benefactors bottled inside. I make it public. Therefore, since birth my kids (James is seven years old, and Julianne is three years old) have seen me point out the gift of watching leaves change color, write thank you notes to friends expressing appreciation for what makes them unique, or kiss my wife for surprising me with my favorite gingerbread latte. Because my kids have watched me express gratitude their entire lives, it’s now starting to become second nature to them. To illustrate, while recently walking our dog my daughter abruptly stopped, tugged on my paints, pointed to the sky, and said, “Daddy, look at the pretty sunset. Isn’t it beautiful!” While there’s no research I know of showing that kids as young as three years old can be genuinely grateful, I have some anecdotal evidence suggesting that they can. So keep at it!
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 (i.e., think gratefully) are more grateful and happier than others—and kids are no exception. In a series of studies we recently published in School Psychology Review, we found that children (ages eight to eleven) taught how to think gratefully were more grateful and happier, compared to children in the control group, up to five months later. They also wrote and delivered 80 percent more thank you cards to their PTA for supporting a presentation they recently watched on character development. So as our research shows, teaching children when they’re young how to think gratefully helps grateful processing become a natural habit.
3. Count your blessings.
Our research has found that early adolescents 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. 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.
Aside from keeping a traditional gratitude journal, which could be done at home as part of the regular nighttime routine or in school as part of a Writing or English class, kids could also take a gratitude visit. Here you would ask the child or teen to write a 300-word essay thanking a benefactor whom they have yet to properly thank and then read that letter to their benefactor in person. This positive psychology intervention has been found to increase happiness and decrease depression in adults up to one month later. More recently, we’ve found that generally unhappy kids who go on a gratitude visit become happier and more grateful up to two months later. Here’s an excerpt from a gratitude letter that one of our 17-year-old female research participants from a Catholic school wrote and delivered to her mother:
I would like to take this time to thank you for all that you do on a daily basis and have been doing my whole life… I am so thankful that I get to drive in with you [to school] every day and… for all the work you do for our church… I thank you for being there whenever I need you. I thank you that when the world is against me that you stand up for me and you are my voice when I can’t speak for myself. I thank you for caring about my life and wanting to be involved… for the words of encouragement and hugs of love that get me through every storm. I thank you for sitting through countless games in the cold and rain and still having the energy to make dinner and all the things you do. I thank you for raising me in a Christian home where I have learned who God was and how to serve Him… I am so blessed to have you as my mommy and I have no idea what I would have done without you.
As you can tell, taking a gratitude visit is a hyper-emotional activity for both the giver and receiver. If you want to make a child more grateful, and help her strengthen her relationships (the top source of gratitude for most people), send her on a gratitude visit. She’ll be grateful you did.
4. Limit media exposure and materialism.
Though letting a child watch yet another episode of Wally Kazaam makes it easier for you to work while you’re stuck inside on a snow day, it’s a poor use of a 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, parents could encourage a preschooler to draw pictures for their teacher and teachers could help kids 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 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.
Teachers and youth workers could further limit materialism in kids by steering them away from extrinsic—or materialistic—goals, such as wealth, popularity, and image. Instead, they could steer them toward intrinsic goals, such as affiliation, growth, and community. Doing so will help them fulfill their basic human needs of competency, autonomy, and relatedness, thus putting them on a path to a meaningful life filled with reasons to be grateful.
5. Counter complaining.
Because our society is so appearance driven, it’s incredibly important for parents and educators 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 a 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. Teenagers involved in habitat for humanity could be reminded how lucky they are to have a roof over their heads, even if it’s not the McMansion their friends have or the mansion their favorite pop idol has. Don’t scare them away by getting your soap box and megaphone. A gentle reminder—when timed properly—is all that you’ll need.