Recently, one of my friends was venting about her teenage daughter being “so ungrateful!” She asked me, “How can she not know how much she has?”
This mom isn’t alone. Parents hope (or expect!) that their children will grow up to be grateful. In a recent study, Amy Halberstadt and colleagues found that parents get peeved when their children don’t show gratitude. As one parent said, “I can be embarrassed as a parent, I can feel angry at [my child] that he hasn’t sufficiently conveyed gratitude when I thought he should.”
But how does gratitude develop? How early do kids start to feel and express gratitude?
One 2013 study aimed to discover the foundations of young children’s understanding of gratitude. When children were three and four years old, the researchers measured their emotion knowledge and perspective taking through a variety of tasks and questions in the laboratory. When children were five years old, the researchers tested how much they understood the positive feelings of gratitude and the reciprocity it might inspire.
Researchers found that the more a five-year-old understood gratitude, the more they had understood emotions and other people’s perspectives when they were three years old. In other words, children’s early emotional awareness and perspective-taking ability may underpin their later development of gratitude.
A 2018 study of seven- to 14-year-olds across Brazil, China, Guatemala, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, and the United States explored how children’s development of gratitude differs across cultures. In most cultures, expressions of “concrete gratitude” decreased as children got older. Concrete gratitude is when children offer something in repayment that is valuable to themselves rather than the other person, like giving a toy to a parent.
Older children were more likely to express “connective gratitude” than younger children in the United States, China, and Russia. Connective gratitude is considered to be a more advanced type of gratitude, when children offer something that is meaningful to another person in return—for example, a child giving a friend a teddy bear that the friend has long wished for. Connective gratitude more fully takes into account another person’s thoughts and feelings, compared to concrete gratitude or verbal gratitude (such as saying “thank you”).
Among the seven cultures, children in China and South Korea were more likely to express connective gratitude (followed by children in Russia and Turkey). American children were more likely to express concrete gratitude, and Guatemalan children were more likely to express verbal gratitude, compared to the other cultures. These findings highlight the important cultural context of gratitude development that is often overlooked by studies exclusively in North America or Europe.
Another recent study investigated possible precursors to gratitude among older children and adolescents, ages 10 to 16. The results indicated that middle schoolers who reported greater gratitude were more likely to feel like they had greater social support from their parents and, to a lesser degree, their teachers.
How can parents set the stage for their children to be grateful? Research suggests that grateful parents raise grateful kids, and a recent study tried to figure out why. The findings? The more gratitude parents felt, the more often they set goals to foster gratitude in their six- to nine-year old children. In turn, they placed their children in more activities that provided opportunities for gratitude, such as family gratitude practices and social service events, and their kids expressed more gratitude.
These findings suggest that both parents’ intentions and their actions are important for how gratitude develops in their children.
“It is largely agreed that gratitude is not inbuilt; instead it develops over time, as certain capacities become available and cognitive abilities mature,” write researchers Blaire Morgan and Liz Gulliford in the new book Developing Gratitude in Children and Adolescents. It “require[s] a great deal of practice.”
What can parents do to help their children practice cultivating gratitude? Here are four research-backed suggestions.
1. Help young children understand feelings and thoughts—their own and others’
Although toddlers may learn to say “thank you,” between preschool and kindergarten they are likely still working on thinking about others’ thoughts and feelings as separate and possibly different from their own. These abilities may be the foundation to their understanding and expressing gratitude.
As parents, we’ll be less frustrated when we align our expectations with our kids’ cognitive development. We can be the scaffolds for their emerging gratefulness by giving them the language for the array of emotions and thoughts they and others may feel and think. It’s always eye-opening to hear a young child’s response to, “How do you think that person feels right now?”
2. Remind older children that the important adults in their lives are there for them
Older children who feel that their parents and teachers are sources of support they can call upon tend to feel grateful. The support may come from knowing that their parents or teachers are trustworthy, provide them with resources they need, or give them helpful feedback and advice. In addition to inspiring gratitude, positive relationships with close adults are critical for children’s overall development.
Remind your older children to practice reflecting on their network of supportive grown-ups, on specific times of distress when these adults were sources of comfort and strength to them, and on how they felt upon receiving support.
3. Encourage your children to participate in gratitude-rich activities
Participating in gratitude-rich activities like family gratitude practices and volunteering can help kids to develop gratitude. These activities provide children with occasions to think about others’ circumstances more deeply, and increase their awareness of their own good fortune and the gifts they’ve received from others.
Witnessing how both peers and adults show gratitude when they participate in these types of activities—and how others respond to that gratitude—provides a model for how gratitude works. And kids may enjoy how their own actions fulfill others, which fulfills them, too.
In Halberstadt’s study, parents shared that they wanted their children to be grateful for what they had, including shelter and food—but this can be a complicated feeling. The parents acknowledged some potential consequences when children recognize that not all people have those basic needs fulfilled and that they, too, could lose them. Some parents believed that this realization could help children to appreciate fully diverse human experiences; others felt that it would “challenge the innocence of childhood bliss.” You may want to consider how to balance your gratitude goals for your children with your values and your children’s development.
4. Communicate the value of gratitude to your children
In Halberstadt’s study, some parents suggested that they had implicit expectations of their children when they gave them gifts, and they felt resentment when their children did not express gratitude toward them.
One way to mitigate this bitterness parents may feel is to have conversations with children regularly about the importance you place on gratitude. Engage children to think creatively about how they could express gratitude for others and talk about others’ positive responses to their efforts. Practice gratitude in front of your child and tell them how you feel when they express gratitude to you.
Spontaneous and unexpected expressions of gratitude from children are intensely moving to parents. They can make us hopeful that our kids feel deeply connected with others and that they’ll strive to be compassionate in turn. If we want to raise grateful kids, the key is to recognize that gratitude is a skill—and to help them practice it just like any other.