Parents of teenagers often tell me that they’re excited to read my new book The Gratitude Diaries because they’re hoping to get some tips about making their own children more grateful. I understand the problem. A lot of parents would like to hear “thank you” just a little more often.
Teens and millennials (those in their early 20s) don’t mean to be ungrateful. But as Yale psychologist Yarrow Dunham told me, kids often code what parents do as obligation. When children believe that parents are supposed to take care of them, they’re not in a mindset to be grateful to them.
In a national survey on gratitude that I oversaw for the John Templeton Foundation, young people aged 18-24 were less likely to express gratitude than any other group. While an overall 48 percent of respondents expressed gratitude on a regular basis (still a mediocre number), that plunged to 35 percent for the millennials.
When asked to talk about gratitude, young people can recognize that they are lucky to have parents who drove them to soccer games, supported their science projects, and perhaps paid for college. But many of the millennials are also conflicted. During focus groups with millennials, a young woman named Emma told me that the gratitude she feels for what her parents have given her “gets smothered with guilt and annoyance that I have to be reliant on them. I feel the guilt a lot more than the gratitude.”
As parents, we help our children because we love them—not because we want to be thanked. But the kids worry that expressing gratitude means admitting that they can’t handle things on their own. A recent college graduate like Emma may want to be independent enough to handle rent and car payments—and when she can’t, she resents having to rely on her parents. Not exactly an emotional set-up for appreciating your parents.
But there are ways around it. Parents can inspire gratitude by giving their children a more expansive view of the world and their place in it. Kids may be naturally self-centered, but if they are encouraged to step outside of themselves and help someone in need, they gain a new, more grateful, view.
Talking about gratitude is also a great gift to give children, and simply encouraging them to look on the bright side gives kids a new view. When my children were young, we regularly ate dinner together, and when we sat down on Friday nights, I asked everyone at the table to share something good that had happened that week. My younger son Matt, all grown up now, recently told me that he still takes Friday nights to stop whatever he’s doing and find a reason to be grateful.
Gratitude isn’t just a feeling, it’s an action. Expressing gratitude by writing in a journal, taking a photo, or shooting a video creates a lasting impression that can bring more gratitude into the world—for children and adults. So for this Father’s Day, I teamed up with the impressive educators at the New York Film Academy. Inspired by my book, they sponsored a competition inviting young filmmakers to create gratitude video for their dads.
Ninety-eight talented young people around the world entered the competition with touching, heartwarming, and very grateful videos for Father’s Day. The top winner, 15-year old Camila Hernandez from Mexico City, thanks her dad for inspiring her, teaching her, and making her laugh. And she does it with this fresh, creative approach:
The first-runner up, a young woman from Spain, created a music video for her dad with an original song describing him as her hero and best friend.
And perhaps most touchingly of all, Samuel Ammisah of Ghana proved that gratitude for a parent thrives around the world. “Happy Fathers Day means more than have a happy day…It means in my heart you’ll forever stay,” Samuel says in the video. “Thank you dad is all I want to say.” And that ‘thank you’ is more than enough.
Learn more about the Father’s Day video winners!