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Teaching Children Gratitude

Posted by David 11/10/17 0 Comment(s)

The How & Why of Teaching Children Gratitude

by Jessica Lahner, Ph.D.

 

Can you believe that the holidays are just around the corner? Come early November I start to fantasize about what our holidays will be like. I picture a beautifully lit Christmas tree with my four children eagerly gathered round. We’ll take turns opening thoughtfully chosen gifts while their little faces beam with gratitude as they reveal what’s inside.

 

Then reality sets in. The holiday stress never fails to damper my cheer and embarrassment rushes over me as one of my kids turns his nose up at a gift from well meaning relatives. It’s during those times I remind myself that gratitude is a practice – a practice we need to teach our children year-round so it becomes a habit.

 

The Benefits of Gratitude 

In addition to displaying good manners when receiving presents, being grateful has benefits beyond family holiday gatherings. 

 

Gratitude fights our tendency to take our blessings for granted.

 

As humans, we habituate to positive life events. For example, that new car is great for a while, but over time we take it for granted and want yet something more.
Gratitude reminds us to celebrate our present gifts which combats this habituation tendency. 

 

Gratitude blocks its opposite emotion of envy. 

 

If you are anything like me, scrolling through my Instagram account and seeing my friends’ vacations and glowing families can invite envy to rear its ugly head. But the habitual practice of gratitude makes this corrosive reaction less likely. After all, it’s hard to be envious and grateful at the same time.

 

Gratitude is associated with lots of what we want and less of what we don’t. 

 

Research demonstrates that gratitude is correlated with higher levels of: a, b, c

  • Life satisfaction, happiness, optimism, empathy and self-esteem
  • Resilience 
  • Desire to give back to one’s community
  • Satisfying, healthy relationships

 

And parents of adolescents, listen up. Thankful teens and preteens use fewer drugs and engage in less sexual activity. 

 

Teaching Gratitude

 

When teaching kids to feel thankful, the goal is to have them acknowledge three things:

 

1.    We want children to appreciate the thought behind the gift. Someone noticed they needed or wanted something and acted on it.

You can help your child develop this habit by commenting, “Isn’t it sweet that Aunt Sally knows you love that author and gave you her latest title for your birthday?”

 


2.    Kids should recognize that the giver gave up time, money and/or energy to provide the gift.
If dad took time off work to attend a baseball game, you might comment, “Dad even took time out of his workday to come watch your game. That’s pretty cool.”

 

 

3.    Part of feeling grateful is recognizing the positive impact of the gift. Children can reflect on how the gift or benefit makes them happy, brightens their day, etc. 

If a younger sibling painted your oldest a picture, you might say, “Every time you look at that painting, you’ll smile thinking about how much your little sister loves you.”

 

Ideas for Nurturing Gratitude Year Round

 

If developing an attitude of gratitude takes practice, we need to be thankful all year round. Here are some ideas to instill the practice in your children (and you too!):

 

Express gratitude daily.

 

Write in a journal or start a dinner ritual where each person shares what they are grateful for each day. This habit teaches kids to be thankful on a conscious level.

 

Write thank you notes.

 

Penning hand-written thank yous requires children to think about what they were given, who gave it and why they are thankful for it.

 

Model gratitude.

 

Say thank you to your kids often. And talk about how kind someone was to you, or how thankful you are for the mail carrier who brings the mail each day rain or shine. Doing so will set an example for your children to follow. 

 

Encouraging Gratitude During the Holidays

 

While everyday offers opportunities to be thankful, the holidays are a prime time to begin the practice. Here are some ways to get started:

 

12 Days of Kindness

 

Have your kids brainstorm ways to give to others. Consider planning one act for each day of the 12 days of Christmas. For example, you could bake cookies for the Fire Department or give a set of hand warmers to the mail carrier.

 

After each act, start a conversation about how it felt to give when it wasn’t expected, the impact their gift might have, and how the act of giving feels in comparison to receiving.

 

Set gifting guidelines and traditions. 

  • Give children a small number of gifts (like a needed gift, a wanted gift, and a gift to read.)
  • Start a tradition where, before opening a gift, each person shares why he or she is thankful for the giver. 
  • When putting away gifts after the festivities, encourage your children choose an older toy or other item for donation for every new gift they received.
     

Teach kids how to graciously receive gifts.

 

Practicing how to express gratitude immediately after opening a present is a gift to the giver. Each holiday, I have my young children role play opening a gift while showing gratitude before our big family gatherings. It’s not enough to say “thank you.” Kids need to practice showing thanks in their non-verbals, even when they aren’t especially thrilled with the gift itself.

 

Thankful kids are happy, resilient and giving kids. And Grandma will appreciate the heartfelt appreciation of her thoughtfulness when you kids unwrap yet another pair of fuzzy reindeer socks this holiday. 

 

a Froh, J. J., Sefick, W. J., & Emmons, R. A. (2008). Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 214-233.

b Ma, M., Kibler, J. L., & Sly, K. (2013). Gratitude is associated with greater levels of protective factors and lower levels of risks in African American adolescents. Journal of Adolescence, 36, 983-991.

c Tugade, M. M., Fredrickson, B. L. (2004).  Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 320-333. 

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About the Author

Jessica Lahner, Ph.D. serves as the Child Development Expert for Fox6 News Real Milwaukee and is on the faculty of the psychology program at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. With a doctorate in counseling psychology, she looks at parenting and play from both a child development and mental health perspective. She has published peer-reviewed articles on development in the Journal of College Student Development, Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, and the International Journal of Adult Development and Aging. When she’s not teaching or writing, you can find her and her husband elbow deep in finger paint or cheering on one of her four young children at the baseball or soccer fields.

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