ACROSS AMERICA — It starts the moment a toddler babbles their first word. As parents, we remind them: “Say please,” when they ask for something and “Say thank you” once they receive it.
Saying “thank you” is expressing gratitude in its simplest form. But as the holidays approach, we think of those gone by and wonder: Do our kids actually understand the meaning behind those words? Do they truly realize and appreciate the sources of the good things in their lives?
Living with gratitude is more than saying “thank you.” For some, it’s as simple as making a deliberate choice, “an affirmation of goodness” in the world, according to Robert Emmons, a University of California, Davis, psychology professor known as the “father of gratitude.”
Experts say that practicing gratitude isn’t pretending bad things didn’t happen, but rather savoring the goodness in our lives and understanding that being grateful begets more goodness.
Patch explores the intentionality of gratitude in “30 Days Of Gratitude.” Come back to Across America Patch every day through November and read more about gratitude.
But gratitude is not inherent. It must be taught. It goes beyond words and good manners — gratitude is an action, and it’s one that inarguably starts with parents.
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“If we simply tell our kids they need to be grateful, that’s not helpful. They don’t know how to do that if they don’t see it,” Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at the Duke University School of Medicine, told Patch. “If we want to raise grateful children, we need to show gratitude as well.”
How Gratitude Benefits Kids
Among adults, living with gratitude — taking note of and being thankful for the meaningful and valuable things in your life — is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.
It’s not much different with kids.
Emmons, who has also studied gratitude extensively with the University of California, Berkeley, found that when adults and children alike practice gratitude, they experience measurable psychological, physical and interpersonal benefits.
Other studies draw the same conclusions:
Adults and kids who live with gratitude are kinder and more generous. They’re generally optimistic, enthusiastic and happy. As their aggression goes down, their ability to cope with stress goes up. Teens report higher self-esteem and lower levels of anxiety and depression. Kids even sleep better.
Gratitude can foster resilience, which helps children and families get through tough times, according to Maryam Abdullah, parenting program director at the Greater Good Science Center.
“We want our kids to feel like there is a promise of good things in the world and that they can be the recipients of these good things,” Abdullah told Patch. “The world can be hard sometimes, and gratitude is one of those strengths that can help them.”
Related: Opera Singer ‘Died’ But Lives As Pianist: 30 Days Of Gratitude
Kids aren’t born knowing how to define or show gratitude. So how does it develop?
A 2013 study on gratitude among preschoolers measured the emotional knowledge of 3- and 4-year-olds. Once the children turned 5 years old, researchers then tested how much they understood the positive feelings associated with gratitude and what it may compel them to do in return.
In the end, researchers found the 5-year-old children who better understood gratitude were also the ones who better understood others’ emotions and perspectives at 3 years old.
Researchers with the Raising Grateful Children project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill followed children from kindergarten until they were young teens.
The project found that gratitude can be broken down into four basic parts:
What we notice in our lives for which we can be grateful.
Thinking about why we have been given those things.
How we feel about the things we have been given.
What we do to express our appreciation.
Keeping these things in mind can help make sense of what we have to be grateful for, according to Andrea Hussong, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UNC Chapel Hill and a researcher with the Raising Grateful Children project.
While the four parts Hussong outlined give parents several options for how they teach their children gratitude, parents often become fixated on what their children do to express it.
Hussong and her colleagues found that about 85 percent of parents expected their children to say “thank you” and show gratitude in ways consistent with good manners. A smaller number — about 39 percent — encouraged children to show gratitude in ways that went beyond good manners. About half said they had to point it out to their children when they received something, while even fewer parents asked children how a gift made them feel or why they thought someone had given them a gift.
“When children are younger, almost all the emphasis is on gratitude behaviors — acting grateful, saying ‘thank you,'” Hussong told Patch. “But when we think about these moments, we realize there’s more that comes before that’s usually ignored by parents, and this is the stuff that really has to do with gratitude and how we receive it.”
Teaching Kids Gratitude
Are kids good at gratitude?
They will be, if we model the behaviors we want to see in our kids, Gurwitch, the Duke School of Medicine professor, told Patch.
When parents try to force children to be grateful, the lesson doesn’t stick, Gurwitch said. They need to make sure kids see gratitude in action.
“We tell them, ‘You have to say thank you or else.’ Or else what? Again, can we show them?” Gurwitch said. “When someone holds the door open, do we say ‘thank you’? Do we acknowledge the cashier and the people who bag our groceries? When we do these small things, our children see.”
While older children and adults are more likely to spontaneously exhibit all four parts of gratitude, younger children may only engage in one or two and usually only when prompted, according to an article by Hussong.
However, the more we think and talk about the good things in our lives, the more likely kids will be to turn to gratitude to find meaning in the world around them, Hussong said.
“You use your thoughts and your feelings to make sense of that,” Hussong told Patch. “The more you think of something that brings you joy and the more you realize it was given to you freely, the more grateful you will feel.”
Most experts agree: Learning gratitude starts with awareness — in other words, noticing the things we have for which we should be grateful.
Awareness also means calling attention to the good things in our lives, according to Abdullah of Greater Good Science Center.
“If you as a parent and family are ready to embark on nurturing gratitude, you first need to notice what’s good,” Abdullah told Patch, adding that parents and kids can easily practice gratitude around the dinner table, or have “grat chats” before bed.
“Think about three good things that happened in your day. It could be something very small, but connecting it to people is really important,” Abdullah said. “Once we are in this habit, we are priming ourselves to look for good in the world. It also changes the lens through which we see the world.”
Next, encourage children to think about why a good thing may have happened to them. Why did this person do something nice for us? Why did they give this gift? Did they have to take time out of their day to do it?
Third, how does your child feel about the thing that happened? Did it make them happy? Did it make them feel loved?
“This helps us get to a deeper level of why we are thankful for something and also helps our kids reflect on the emotions they felt when it happened,” Abdullah said. “Sometimes it’s a deep sense of relief or a feeling of wonder. Sometimes it’s a feeling of love and understanding how much someone cares about them.”
The final component is critical: What do our kids want to do now that they’ve noticed and talked about what they’re grateful for?
Sometimes, they may just want to recognize what they’re feeling, Abdullah said. Other times, they may want to reciprocate with a nice gesture, such as picking flowers for a teacher who helped with a problem.
“This ties into how gratitude has a way of connecting us to others because it motivates us to do good,” Abdullah said.
Is it ever too late to teach our kids gratitude? Absolutely not, experts agree. Gratitude is a skill that can be practiced and refined at any age.
“You can do this with your grandfather, and it can still shift a relationship,” Hussong said. “I don’t feel like there is ever a time that’s too late. It’s a practice, and the more we practice, the better we become.”
If you’re a parent interested in teaching your kid gratitude, here’s a list of resources you can turn to: