My son’s preschool teachers have a gratitude practice of singing a sweet “Thank You” song with the children every day. I appreciate when he asks to sing it with me at home because it’s a shared opportunity to grow our gratitude together, even in a brief moment.
To some extent, raising grateful kids is a long-term practice. It involves helping them develop strong relationships and empathy toward others, and mindfulness of the good things in their life. But can everyday, simple actions help us foster gratitude in our kids, too?
This was the subject of a recent study by Andrea Hussong and her colleagues, and they found that parents may indeed have the ability to influence their children’s gratitude on a micro level—day in and day out.
Her team studied gratitude in over 100 six to nine year olds and their parents, who were mostly European-American moms. The parents completed online diaries each day for a week, reporting how often they noticed their children demonstrating gratitude—from showing good manners (both with and without prompting from parents) to expressing more meaningful gratitude toward others. They also indicated how often they helped to cultivate gratitude in their children each day, by (for example) highlighting nice things people did for their child or reminding them to say thanks.
The researchers found that the more parents took action to cultivate gratitude in their kids on a certain day, the more their kids showed gratitude on that same day—compared to days when the parents took less action and compared to other kids whose parents took less action. These findings held even after accounting for parents’ levels of gratitude, how sensitive their parenting style was, the children’s age, and how well the kids were functioning emotionally and in their relationships.
How are these study findings useful to parents who want to raise grateful kids? Here are several suggestions to keep in mind as you aspire to be a positive influence on your children.
1. Take it one day at a time
The findings by Hussong and her colleagues suggest that parents can engage in a number of daily activities to help their kids learn about gratitude. For example, perhaps you notice your child telling her grandparents how much it means to her that they cooked her favorite foods when she visited. In moments like this, you can tell your children how you feel about them expressing gratitude to others or to you. You can also talk about why you feel thankful during shared experiences with your kids, such as appreciating the natural world when you are taking a hike in the woods.
Daily practices can become a pattern that helps you model, teach, reinforce, and create opportunities to cultivate gratitude. During dinner or immediately before bedtime, parents and children can take turns sharing about three good things that happened in their lives each day. Parents of older children and teens can practice daily guided gratitude meditations together that help to bring to awareness the many gifts in their lives—from their bodies and possessions, to beloved family and friends, to modern technology such as electricity and running water, to institutions such as libraries and schools.
2. Expect gratitude to develop bit by bit
Children’s understanding of gratitude matures as they get older, and so gratitude may be experienced differently at different ages. For adults, gratitude is often thought to involve feeling thankful or joyful for receiving a gift that was given to you voluntarily and intentionally by another. For children, gratitude may not involve all these adult experiences and expressions at the same time.
In the study, Hussong and her team asked parents to look out for four different elements that can be part of children’s gratitude: noticing they’ve received a gift, understanding that this gift was given to them on purpose by another, having positive feelings such as joy, and expressing their gratitude.
Sometimes, children don’t experience the link among all of these parts simultaneously yet. For example, a six year old may feel happy and thank her dad for a special beach picnic lunch on her birthday, but she may not yet fully connect her happiness to her dad’s decision to take a day off work because he knows how much she loves sand castles and tide pools.
Parents can adjust their expectations about how their children experience gratitude to take this into account, which will ward off disappointment when kids forget to say thank you or don’t seem to appreciate the sacrifices of others. Instead, notice your children’s strengths—for example, the fact that they were delighted by a gift rather than feeling entitled to it. You can be your children’s gratitude guide by helping them learn about the four parts of gratitude and their possible connections, supporting them where they’re at in their development.
3. Be both proactive and reactive
Does parental guidance inspire children to be grateful, or do kids’ thank yous prompt parents to talk about gratitude? Hussong’s research can’t answer this question for sure, but it’s likely both. Nurturing gratitude can be a two-way street; parents and children can take turns leading the effort.
On the one hand, children who proactively receive more support from their parents to develop their gratitude may learn and show more gratitude, and come to see that their parents value gratitude. One way to offer this support, or “scaffolding,” is to make a point of expressing your own thanks in front of your children. When your partner goes out of her way to put gas in your car because you have a busy week ahead, talk about your gratitude over Sunday breakfast as a family.
On the other hand, children’s spontaneous acts of gratitude may lead parents to react by paying more attention and setting more goals to teach their children about gratitude. When you notice that your son is beaming with delight and hugs his aunt after she repairs his broken bicycle, ask him about his feelings, what it took for his aunt to fix his bike, why he thinks she chose to do so, and what kind of thank you note or drawing he might create for her.
Like many parents, I’d love for my son to be an instant gratitude expert, and I feel pressure around the Thanksgiving holiday to teach him big gratitude lessons. But it feels empowering to me (and much more doable) to see gratitude as developing step by step and during shared, everyday moments throughout the year. I also find that I empower my son when I recognize that we are more of a duo—rather than lead and backup singers—as we collaborate to cultivate gratitude together.