Most parents want to raise children who are gracious and grateful for the gifts they receive from others. None of us want to have “that kid” who acts like an entitled brat or throws a fit when they don’t get the gift they wanted. In a world that teaches our kids that complaining and always striving for “more” and “better” is the norm, raising our children to have a gracious and grateful attitude can be challenging.
Many parents don’t realize that an “attitude of gratitude” is not an inherent trait in children. Being grateful and thankful is taught regularly and preferably from a young age. But teaching children to be grateful is not as easy as it may seem. It takes time, effort, and a lot of patience on the part of the parents. And in most cases, it requires a family culture that cultivates a thankful heart.
Encourage a Grateful Heart Every Day
Much research has been done to understand the relationship between gratitude and happiness, but most of it has focused on adults. In more recent years, researchers have been turning their attention to the link between gratitude and happiness in young children. And they have found that grateful children are, in a nutshell, better off in life.1
A 2019 study showed that gratitude is linked to happiness in children by age five and that this link may help them grow up to be happier people.1 In 2008, a study showed that grateful children tend to be happier, more optimistic, and more satisfied with themselves, their friends, family, and community.2 A study published in 2011 showed that grateful teens were more likely to use their strengths to support their community, were more engaged in their schoolwork and hobbies, made better grades, and were less envious, depressed, and materialistic.3
And the benefits continue into adulthood. Studies show that adults who practice gratitude enjoy improved psychological well-being, better health, sleep better, and live longer.4 Grateful adults are happier in the present and more hopeful about their future.5
Clearly, there are many great reasons for a family to practice gratitude and instill it in their children from an early age. Here are some ways you can encourage a grateful attitude in your children:
1. Model Gratitude
Grateful parents tend to raise grateful children.8 As with everything else kids learn, they tend to watch and emulate what their parents do and how they act. If we want to raise grateful kids, we first must practice gratitude ourselves.
This may look like saying “thank you” to everyone, from the check-out girl at the grocery store to the stranger who holds open the door of the coffee shop. This may also look like talking about gratitude in all circumstances (even when it’s difficult). For instance, instead of complaining about the gloomy weather, share how grateful you are that you have an excuse to stay in and have a movie day. Or, instead of grumbling about how much work you have to do, make sure you share how grateful you are that you have a job that helps the family afford what they need. Modeling a grateful attitude may be the single most influential factor in instilling the same in your children.
2. Start a Gratitude Jar or Bulletin Board
Creating a family gratitude jar or bulletin board is a more tactile way to help your children learn how to express gratitude. Each family member can add things they’re grateful for throughout the week. At the end of the week, perhaps over a nice dinner, you can read the pieces of paper aloud to honor the good things happening in each of their lives.
3. Start a Gratitude Ritual
As a family, begin a gratitude ritual where you gather and share daily all the things you’re grateful for. One common way to do this is around the dinner table.
Many families of faith will start their evening prayer with thanks for all God has given them. If this is something you do with your family, perhaps give your children the chance to share what they are thankful for with their own prayer. If you are a secular family, you can take turns sharing what you’re grateful for. Or you can talk to your children at bedtime about gratefulness and have them share the blessings of that day. Whatever ritual you create, be sure to do it consistently.
4. Reflect on the Experience
Researchers at the Raising Grateful Children Project6 at UNC-Chapel Hill have discovered that gratitude is an experience that has four parts:7
- Noticing—what we notice in our lives for which we can be grateful
- Thinking—thinking about why we’ve been given those things
- Feeling—how we feel about the things we’ve been given
- Doing—what we do to express appreciation for those things
Researchers found that a great majority of parents focused on teaching their kids the “doing” part of gratefulness (“Say thank you!”), and very few focused on asking their kids how the gift made them feel or how they felt about the person giving it.7 To help your kids develop a deeper sense of gratitude, researchers encourage parents to start asking kids questions revolving around all four gratitude components. Some suggestions include:
- NOTICE—What are you grateful for in your life? Are there non-material gifts you have been given for which you are grateful? Are you grateful for any people in your life?
- THINK—What do you think about this gift? What do you think about the person who gave it to you? Why do you think you received the gift? Did you do something to earn it? Do you think they gave it to you because they felt they had to?
- FEEL—Does it make you feel happy to receive this gift? What about this gift makes you feel happy?
- DO—Is there a way to show how you feel about this gift? Does this feeling make you want to share the feeling by giving someone else a gift?
Teach Your Kids to Be Grateful for Gifts
Teaching kids to have a grateful heart in all circumstances is the best way to instill that attitude of gratitude that will benefit them for a lifetime. But there are also more practical and immediate things you can do to teach your kids to be grateful for the gifts they receive. Here are a few ideas:
1. Make Them the Giver
Help your child love to give gifts by focusing on the art of giving. Whether it’s making gifts for family members and friends or doing a community services project together, helping kids understand the value of giving will foster a spirit of gratitude when they’re on the receiving end of gift-giving.
2. Focus on the Intention
When your child receives a gift, help them focus on what’s important: the giver’s intention. The old adage “it’s the thought that counts” rings true here. Here is where asking the above NOTICE, THINK, and FEEL questions will come in handy.
3. Prepare Them to Show Thankfulness
Generally, you will have a good idea of when you’ll be in a situation where your child may receive a gift. Significant gift-giving events like a birthday dinner, party, or Christmas are prime examples. Before you engage in the event, prepare your child ahead of time to remember to behave with a grateful attitude. Remind them to think about the gift giver’s intention and show their thankfulness by saying thank you.
4. Have Them Say Thank You
The DOING part of gratitude is generally what most parents focus on: saying thank you. And while this isn’t necessarily all that gratitude requires, it’s still an important part. Teach your kids to look the giver in the eye and tell them “thank you.” And to mean it!
5. Write a Thank You Note
Writing a thank you note after receiving a gift seems to have become old-fashioned. But why should it be? Having your child write a thank you note for each gift they receive will help them reflect on the experience of gratitude, and it will put a smile on the face of the person who gave the gift.
6. Immediately Correct Ungrateful Behavior
Despite your best efforts, children will react to gifts in ways you may not appreciate. They are, after all, still learning how to show gratitude. When your child complains about a gift or acts indifferent or uninterested, quietly pull them aside and have a little chat. Remind them of what it means to be grateful and how we are supposed to behave when someone gives us a gift. Acknowledge that they may not like the gift, but they must still show gratefulness. And encourage them to correct their behavior by saying thank you!
7. Praise Them for Showing Gratefulness
When you notice your child showing gratefulness, shower them with praise! Whether you can tell that they’re genuinely grateful or just being polite, let them know you noticed and are proud of them. For example, “I saw how excited you were about that new toy and how nicely you thanked your friend. That was a great job being grateful!” Or “I could tell you don’t really like the sweater Grandma got you, but you did such a good job showing gratitude and thanking her. I’m so proud of you!”
Teaching your kids to be grateful for the gifts they receive starts with teaching them how to approach life with gratitude. Modeling a grateful attitude, establishing family gratitude rituals, and encouraging your kids to reflect on the entire experience of gratitude will go a long way in raising truly grateful kids. And it will hopefully foster in them happiness and contentedness that will continue to serve them for the rest of their lives.