Many parents I know worry that their kids don’t seem grateful for all that they have in their lives. Instead, their children seem to value possessions—clothes, toys, and electronic gadgets—more than the people and relationships that sustain and nurture them. They worry that this lack of gratitude may lead to an entire generation of entitled kids.
I’ve worried about that, too. But my attempts to inculcate gratitude in my own kids often seem to fall on deaf ears. If anything, my sons roll their eyes or actively rebel when I try to initiate a gratitude ritual at dinnertime. Is this a lost cause?
Not according to gratitude researchers Jeffrey Froh and Giacomo Bono. Parents can help kids to become more grateful, though it takes effort and time. Their book, Making Grateful Kids, provides thirty-two useful, research-based tips for parents who want to teach their kids about gratitude without having to twist any arms.
Many of their tips involve things parents can do without requiring kids’ cooperation, such as learning about kids’ developmental needs and responding appropriately. For example, Froh and Bono suggest that kids learn how to handle difficult, negative emotions best when parents act calmly and don’t blame kids for their feelings. So when your child cries inconsolably over a drawing he made that is “ruined,” it’s better to validate his feelings in a calm way—i.e. “You worked hard on that, no wonder you feel sad”—rather than to insist he stop crying or to minimize his feelings by saying that the picture looks fine to you.
But what does this have to do with gratitude? According to the authors, research shows that kids who can regulate their negative emotions are at an advantage for developing gratitude later in life. “Knowledge of emotions as young as age three leads to a greater understanding of thoughts and beliefs at age four, and the two factors are both linked to a better understanding of the concept of gratitude by age five,” they write.
Because imitation is a large part of learning, the authors suggest that parents need to be a role model of thanking and giving for their children, too. Thanking a friend who does you a favor or providing help to a neighbor in need will demonstrate positive social relationships for your kids and provide a blueprint for their own generous behavior down the road.
Parents can also directly encourage kids to write thank you notes or give small gifts to others who help them—teachers, friends, or grandparents. And, it’s important for parents to express thanks to their kids, too—even for the things they think kids “should” do, like washing dishes or cleaning their rooms—and to do the same for spouses or partners.
Many kids are pressured to become more materialistic by the consumer culture that surrounds them. According to Froh and Bono, teaching kids about how to savor their experiences and their possessions can lead to reduced consumerism and increased gratitude. Savoring includes things like putting down cell phones while you and your child interact and being fully present; spending time reviewing all of the good things that have happened to you both during the day; eating a good meal together slowly; or encouraging your kid to find new ways to play with an old, favorite toy.
This works, in part, by decreasing “hedonic adaptation”—or the tendency to adapt to pleasurable experiences so that they provide less pleasure as time goes on—which otherwise works against gratitude.
Though many parents may want to encourage gratitude just so home life is more pleasant, there are other good reasons to promote gratitude in children. Research has shown that gratitude in kids is associated with all kinds of positive benefits, including increased happiness, optimism, and life satisfaction. More grateful teens are more engaged in their schoolwork and hobbies, and are less envious, depressed, and materialistic, than their less grateful counterparts. Gratitude has also been linked to greater social connection and a sense of community.
But the benefits don’t really stop there. Grateful kids tend to turn into successful, grateful adults, who have strong relationships and a commitment to community. In fact, Froh and Bono’s book could be considered a resource for raising well-adjusted kids, in general, as much a guide on how to raise grateful kids. Many of their tips—from helping to identify children’s gifts to teaching polite behavior to encouraging community service—are just as much about good parenting as they are about gratitude…though increasing gratitude in the world is the authors’ primary goal.
“The ultimate function that gratitude may serve in human development…is to help individuals find their own life story for elevating others and to make a difference in the world,” they write. “Like the moral memory of humankind, gratitude reflects the story of the best that individuals, and society, can be.”