Teaching kids gratitude

Easy ways to foster thankfulness in children—and how it can transform their lives for the better

 

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and though the way we celebrate may be different this year, we still have the opportunity to step into the benefit of the holiday. Beneath the haze of stuffed bellies and tryptophan-induced naps is the possibility to connect one of the most profound human emotions. As its name not so subtly reminds us, Thanksgiving is designed for gratitude.

 

Is being thankful really all it’s hyped up to be? The experts certainly think so. Research into the growing field of positive psychology has found that the simple act of noticing and appreciating the positive things in your life can lead to increased happiness. If that’s not reason enough to amplify the good in your world, researchers have also discovered that those who created weekly gratitude lists experienced greater optimism and fewer visits to the doctor. Practicing gratitude—yes, it’s a practice—is a free and easy way to boost your overall wellbeing. And turns out, it’s never too early to start. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found a connection between gratitude and happiness in children as young as five. Help your child bring appreciation into their everyday lives and they’ll be on a path to becoming a more content adult.

 

Teaching your kiddo to see the goodness that’s here right now—this may be a treasured stuffed animal, a dear friend, or even a knack for cartwheeling—can help to defuse negative emotions while fortifying their self-worth and resilience. Children who have ready access to gratitude aren’t as jealous and materialistic as kids who are less appreciative—and they also show greater interest in academics and extracurriculars. And if grateful people are happier people, and happier people are kinder people (research shows this, too), imagine a world where feeling gratitude is like breathing air—a natural part of human existence. How much better could it be?

 

The anatomy of gratitude

The Raising Grateful Children Project at UNC Chapel Hill has created a simple four-part system that breaks down the key elements of the practice:

 

  • Notice the person, place, or thing you want to appreciate.
  • Think about the reasons you are grateful for this person or thing.
  • Feel the emotions that this person or thing brings up in you. How does this thing make you feel? Happy? Energized? Peaceful?
  • What can you Do to express your gratitude for this person or thing?

 

Gratitude in action

You can wax poetic about embodying a state of thankfulness, but if the adults in the household aren’t modeling this way of being, it’s impossible for kids to do so. It’s never too late to bring more appreciation into your grown-up life. Show your kids how pleased you are to be living the life you are living, how each day is filled with small and significant joys, and how they brighten your day with their unique gifts and charms—and be sure to thank your kids for any steps they take to make the world a brighter place.

Integrate more gratitude into your daily life—and your kids’ lives—with a few fun exercises:


Find the extraordinary in the ordinary—Show your kiddos how to spot the wonder in everyday life. While driving to school or walking in the neighborhood point out small beauties or curiosities—a colorful autumn leaf crunching under foot, the aroma of a rose in a neighbor’s garden, or cotton candy clouds swirling overhead. Nature is a surefire path to everyday magic.

 

Express gratitude on the daily—Appreciation doesn’t just happen. There are many ways to make gratitude a part of every day. Before digging into dinner, everyone takes a turn sharing one special thing from their day; at bedtime you and your child each share three things that you appreciate about each other; while on a road trip or bike ride everybody lists all the things that make them happy, reciting as many as they can.

 

Become a silver lining detective—Inspire your child to get out their “metal detector” and find the silver lining in an unpleasant or difficult situation. Helping your kids master the art of the reframe will serve them throughout their lives.

 

Vaporize jealousy and envyJealousy and envy are the nemeses of gratitude. Support your kids in working through these challenging feelings by highlighting all that they already have and all that they already are. Help them see that comparing themselves to others is a fruitless practice as everyone is on a unique path.

 

Need more inspiration?

Get those gratitude juices flowing with more appreciation-inducing activities:

 

Write thank you notes

Help your child choose someone special to acknowledge—it could be a teacher, coach, grandparent, or sibling—and support them in noting something significant that this person did to brighten your child’s day. This is a decidedly analog process, putting pen to paper. The act of expressing gratitude through the written word helps to imprint a state of thankfulness into the writer’s spirit and placing a note in an envelope, adorning it with a stamp, and depositing in the mailbox can be very exciting for a young child. Kids who are still learning to write can draw a picture to express their gratitude.

 

Read fun books about gratitude

Books are a sweet way to teach kids about the power of gratitude.

These are our top picks:

 

Create a gratitude jar

Have your child decorate a jar and have them take a few minutes before bedtime each night to write down three things, on individual slips of paper, that that they are grateful for today. Remind them that joy and beauty often come in small moments—perhaps a friend shared a yummy snack with them at lunch or they swung easily across the monkey bars at recess. Watch the jar fill with gratitudes, and on a challenging day, your child can open the jar and be reminded of all the little joys they’ve already experienced.

 

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