To instill genuine gratitude in kids, parents have to do more than remind them to say “thank you” for their new toys and clothes. As you reflect on the year past and get ready for the year ahead, it’s a perfect time to dig deeper than that and consider the role you want gratitude to play in your family.
A UNC Chapel Hill research project called Raising Grateful Children maintains that gratitude is about much more than showing good manners and expressing appreciation. Children (and adults) experience gratitude in several important ways: by noticing things to be grateful for, thinking about why we have received those things, and getting in touch with our feelings about being given those things—in addition to acting on that gratitude.
Most parents tend to focus on what children do or say to express thanks, rather than the other three essential parts of the experience: noticing, thinking, and feeling. So beyond reminding them to say “thank you,” what can you do with your children to teach gratitude and appreciation from the inside out?
Ask lots of questions
The Raising Grateful Children researchers recommend asking children a variety of questions to engage them in the whole process of gratitude. For example, after the holidays or anytime, you could bring up the following questions to get the wheels turning:
- Can you think of anything else you are grateful for? What about things besides material objects?
- Why do you think this person did this for you/gave this to you?
- How does it make you feel inside to receive this gift? How do you think the person who gave it to you felt?
- Does receiving this gift make you want to do anything for the person who gave it to you, or for anyone else?
Make thank you cards more meaningful
Making thank you cards is a wonderful way for kids to show appreciation. But first try taking a step back to be sure kids really understand the point. For instance, you could ask them to draw a picture of how they felt receiving their gift, or to write down other positive things about the person who gave it to them.
Lead by example
Parents can demonstrate the true meaning of gratitude by example. When you receive help from someone in any form—whether it’s the garbage collector or a friend who cooked for you—you can say out loud how it makes you feel, how hard the person must have worked to help you, and why you are grateful to them. You can even ask your child to help you come up with ways to show your appreciation or pay it forward.
Don’t give kids everything they want
Research has shown that childhood overindulgence leads to less grateful, less joyful, and more materialistic attitudes later in life. So the act of saying “no” even when it’s hard, and making children work for things (for instance, instead of caving in and buying the cookies they whined for in the grocery store aisle, have them help you bake something from scratch later), sets kids up for much greater appreciation and gratitude down the line.
Keep it going past the holiday season
Gratitude is something families can practice all year long. And it does actually take practice! So consider making gratitude a regular and intentional part of each day or week. At dinner time or bedtime—every day, or every Sunday, for example—have each family member report on one positive thing from their day or week and how it made them feel.