Over the past several years, we have heard a lot about the importance of gratitude. Science has shown it to be one of the most powerful human emotions we possess, and it can be cultivated by anyone. We know it is important because we know what the absence of gratitude looks like, such as entitled teens who sue their parents for tuition or spoiled pop stars giving attitude to authorities.
No parent wants their child to act like this, but teaching children gratitude is about more than just avoiding bad behavior. Studies on gratitude in children show that the benefits of gratitude are far more reaching than originally thought. Children who display high levels of gratitude are less materialistic, have greater self-discipline and self-awareness, have more goals for the future, earn higher grades, and develop stronger connections to their schools and community. Furthermore, they are less likely to engage in risky and dangerous behavior.
With benefits like these, it is imperative that parents make an intentional effort to teach gratitude to their children. Gratitude does not always come naturally--especially in today’s world--but parents can instill the habit in their kids through everyday interactions, as can teachers and other key adults in children’s lives.
Be a role model of thanking and giving for children. Encourage them to thank, give and be thoughtful toward friends, particularly using their character strengths. Children learn about themselves and the world by observing and imitating others. Research shows that parents who practice and value grateful expression and reinforce such expression in their kids have grateful children.
Encourage children to recognize the good intentions and sacrifice behind the benefits and acts of kindness they receive from others and the personal value of each gift.
People who view interpersonal benefits in terms of the personal value to them, in terms of the intention of the benefactor to improve their life, and in terms of the cost to the benefactor for providing the gift tend to be more grateful and happier than others. And kids are no exception. Help your children frame the kindnesses they receive in these terms. Teaching young children how to think gratefully helps grateful processing become a natural habit.
Counter complaints by encouraging children to appreciate the good in their lives. Children can be experts when it comes to complaining about failure or things not working out the way they had hoped. When this happens, actively encourage children to find a “silver lining” or to see opportunity in the situation for improving. Think of examples from your own life, or of other people, about success only coming after many failed attempts.
In addition, much of our happiness is determined by the social comparisons we make. When we compare ourselves to people we think of as better than us, we feel deprived. When we compare ourselves to people who are less fortunate than us, we feel grateful. When your children focus on those who they feel have it better than them, remind them of those who are less fortunate. Recognizing that there are those less fortunate helps build empathy, gratitude and appreciation.
Students who count their blessings became more grateful, optimistic, satisfied with their lives and experience fewer negative feelings. Have children keep a gratitude journal or ask them about their blessings of the day or week. When children think of blessings and who was responsible for good things happening to them, they feel loved and valued. This makes them more helpful with others, helps focus them on the good in their lives, helps them have more thoughtful prayers and thankfulness to God for having such great people in their lives.
Even during mealtime, help them pray for the people responsible for the food on the table. Longitudinal data show that children who say grace during meals develop more gratitude than their peers. Also, grateful kids report being more spiritual. Thus, educators and adults who work with youth can encourage kids to think and thank people who have helped them during the week or who have been a good influence in their lives.
Children learn the positive emotional skills they need from their caregivers, teachers and adults who are close to them. Adults can help kids build up positive emotional and behavioral skills to develop their ability to reason morally. For example, point out the physical and emotional consequences of their behavior on others, clarifying how they should behave. Building up moral reasoning will help your child develop empathy and self-control, which are necessary building blocks of gratitude.
Like it or not, media influences our children’s development, especially their independence, sense of right and wrong, and authenticity. Children’s lack of real-world knowledge puts them at a disadvantage for evaluating the truthfulness of media messages. Media is also more commercial than ever, encouraging sensation-seeking and immediate gratification over more purposeful discovery and self-discipline.
Limiting a child’s screen time is straightforward: Tell them how much TV they can watch and how much game time they can have--and stick to it. Aggressive media, which can desensitize kids to people’s needs, also should be limited.
Materialism makes a child’s sense of happiness dependent on acquiring things. Put materialism and gratitude in perspective by focusing your priorities on the quality of experiences in your daily life and your family’s life. Reduce your child’s consumption habits by having your child follow up on media activity with a visit to the park, a creative activity or reading time.
Teaching kids to savor the moment will help them learn gratitude and keep materialism at bay. Savoring is the capacity to appreciate and enhance the positive experiences in our lives. Savoring helps stretch the happiness we experience and maintain contentment.
Emphasize value of your experiences as a family by reviewing old photo albums and telling favorite stories from vacations. By savoring what you already have, you learn to be grateful in any situation.
Studies show that for people to feel grateful for the help the receive, they must feel personal responsibility for their achievements. If you don’t allow your child to take responsibility for their achievements, they will not learn to experience gratitude.
For this reason, it is important to make them work for their achievements. Let them take the lead in planning their science project, and they will be more grateful for your help. Furthermore, allow your child to experience the consequences of their actions, so they will learn to make wise choices.
Teaching gratitude requires making the most of everyday interactions with your child, which, in turn, requires you to be present with them. If you are overly stressed from work or exhausted from a long trip, take time to recharge yourself so you can make the most of the time you spend with your child. Taking care of yourself is not selfish. If anything, it is other-centered to rejuvenate yourself, so you can stay committed to your goal of teaching gratitude.
Teaching children gratitude is extremely important. Children who display high levels of gratitude are less materialistic, have more self-discipline and are likely to engage in less dangerous behaviors. While gratitude does not always come naturally, parents can instill this habit in their kids through everyday interactions.
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