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5 Key points for teaching gratitude, from a child psychologist

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Roman Samborskyi | Shutterstock

Jim Schroeder - published on 01/28/24

We all want our children (and ourselves!) to grow in gratitude. Here are some things to remember.

“Say ‘thank you.’”

Growing up, I heard this a lot from my parents. There was no doubt that they wanted me to turn into a thankful, appreciative adult in all facets of my life, and the constant request to “say ‘thank you'” was one of the tools they used.  

Yet recent research suggests that there are even more effective ways to instill gratitude in our children. And, scientists are learning, teaching gratitude not only promotes improved relationships and increased happiness and life satisfaction, but it also can lead to improved health, with results such as lower blood pressure, improved sleep, and better immune functioning.

As detailed in this recent article, it’s important to consider a few keys for best encouraging our kids to give thanks.

Developmental Awareness

First, in teaching our kids gratitude, we must consider their age and development, which impacts their understanding of thankfulness. Before you teach your kids how or when to be thankful, you should share your own moments of gratitude (and the positive emotions that come with it), so that they can see gratitude in action. 

Sharing authentic moments of thanks provides a model even for toddler-aged kids, which can be replicated as they grow older.

Ask, don’t tell

Before we start telling our kids to be thankful, it’s important to help kids understand their own feelings of gratitude, even at a rudimentary level. This can be accomplished by asking them how they felt about their positive experiences, such as receiving a gift or being helped by someone. 

In essence, we are teaching our kids to reflect on the fact that others directly participated in their joy, and thus this is a gift that we should repay in some way, even if with a simple hug or “thank you.” These interchanges with our kids also give us a chance to reflect on what they may not understand about gratitude, and giving and receiving.

Actions really do speak louder than words

Not unlike many other aspects of our parental lives, what we do usually has more impact than what we say when it comes to the long-term habits of our kids. Grateful kids are often raised by grateful parents, and when our kids see us expressing thanks in a joyful, authentic way, they are more likely to see gratitude as an attractive option in their dealings with others. 

Furthermore, in our very child-focused society, where parents may feel worn out by all the supposed things they should be doing for kids, teaching children that others’ well-being especially their parents’ well-being — is important provides for a greater sense of equitability that is actually healthier for all.

Keep expectations reasonable

Good tactics exercised too frequently may end up diluting, or even discouraging, the good habits we want to encourage. While certain kids might be wired to show gratitude constantly — whether it is sitting around the dinner table each night or saying thank you in almost all desired scenarios — for many kids, an expectation of frequent expressions of thanks might feel stifling and lead to a reactionary response (i.e., not saying thank you at all, or doing so begrudgingly). 

Thus, it may actually be more effective to find creative, flexible ways to encourage gratitude. Check in with teens especially (e.g., “Are you doing okay?”) if gratitude seems absent. Forcing an appreciative response doesn’t mean we are cultivating an appreciative mindset. 

Finding creative ways that jive with our kids’ personalities or interests (e.g., one kid may want to draw a picture whereas another might say thanks by playing the piano), and also allowing for breaks and delayed responses, can root this habit so that it lasts long after our kids have left our home. 

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Finally, it is worth remembering that encouraging any good value takes time, and the fruits of our labor as parents may be more delayed than desired. 

In the end, true gratitude can never be forced, but must be fostered in various ways, so that ultimately we feel a strong desire to recognize all the ways in which others (and ultimately God) have provided so much promise, possibility, and peace in our lives.  

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