There is a reason that we have the saying that it is important to “count your blessings.” Research has long shown that gratitude plays a major role in an adult’s well-being and success, and more recent research has supported this same finding with regard to children. For example, gratitude in children as been linked to greater social support, higher levels of happiness and protection from life stressors, more satisfaction with school, friends, family and community, as well as increased giving of emotional support to others. Perhaps most pointedly with regard to the upcoming holiday season, recent studies suggest that kids who are more grateful are also less materialistic. Given all of the benefits that come along with gratitude, here are some tips for fostering this trait in your children — and in yourself.
1. Actively Model Gratitude. There are numerous opportunities in everyday life to demonstrate gratitude. From basic good manners, such as thanking someone for their assistance in a store or restaurant, to expressions of gratitude about anything and everything in your life and in your surroundings that you can think of. Good weather, a dishwasher that works, a warm smile from a neighbor, a sunset, the automatic timer on your coffee maker, a favorite pair of slippers, healthy bodies that do their jobs well — remembering to explicitly comment on the things that you yourself are thankful for in your home, your family and your community will help your children to do the same.
2. Practice Gratitude Yourself. If you are finding it difficult to model gratitude, you might need more practice yourself. Try setting a simple goal: write down 5 things that you are grateful for every day for one week. Remember, you do not have to have “big” items on your list each day. What is important is to appreciate what you have, no matter how trivial or insignificant it may seem. If this task still seems daunting, break your day down into portions: what were you grateful for in the morning, mid-day, in the afternoon, in the evening and at night? Or break your life up into portions: what are you thankful for in your family, in your friendships, in your neighborhood, at work and/or in your community. Once you get in the habit of focusing on what you yourself are grateful for in your everyday life, you may find it easier to model this behavior for your children.
3. Actively Teach Gratitude. Children can be taught to express gratitude in a myriad of ways. Again, starting with basic good manners, encourage children to thank others for any kindness that they receive. This thanks can be delivered in person related to a specific action (thanks for helping me with my homework, thanks for having me over to play, thanks for sharing your toys with me). Children can also be encouraged to give thanks in writing to friends, family members and/or community members (thanks for the new book that you gave me, thanks for the donation that you made to the Boy Scouts, thanks for working so hard to teach us multiplication).
4. Discuss Values Regularly. Values are often abstract concepts to children. But they do know what is important to them, particularly with regard to their relationships. Help them understand and/or articulate why they like to spend time with certain friends (e.g. Sally is good at sharing, Billy is really funny, John is kind and thoughtful, Mary is creative and silly). By helping them talk about what they value in others, you are supporting their gratitude for having those people in their lives – and also teaching them about what qualities make good friends. You can also highlight what you value in them as a way to demonstrate this idea and model gratitude for others.
5. Encourage Helping Behavior. Research suggests that gratitude and generosity tend to go hand in hand. People who are more grateful for what they have are more likely to be oriented towards sharing and helping. Encouraging children to be helpful, cooperative and giving contributes to stronger social connections and also helps to promote gratitude. This encouragement can be concrete, in the form of helping around the house (e.g. everyone has a job to do at dinner time, helping a younger sibling get something he/she can’t reach), or more abstract, such as helping others in need (e.g. donating some of their allowance, volunteering their time for a cause that they think is valuable).
Kathleen McElhaney, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist