Thanksgiving: The top 5 tips for fostering gratitude in kids

‘Tis not just the season for giving and giving thanks. ‘Tis the season for parents to wonder why their kids are acting like... well... entitled little jerks.  

It’s a complaint we hear regularly: As we enter the much-anticipated holiday season, rather than feeling love and contentedness from our little ones, parents are blown away by a barrage of gift demands and shopping “needs." The turkey gets cold as teens prepare to rush stores for the newly expanded “Black Friday," as sure a sign as any that gratitude in the US has lost out to consumerism. The spirit of Christmas (or Hanukkah, or any of the other winter holidays) has become no less materialistic. 

But at the same time that culture is pushing kids to want, want, want, there is a growing body of research showing that gratitude for what one already has is a huge component for kids of not just happiness, but of physical health, life satisfaction, and even grade point average.

So what’s a parent to do? How does one foster gratitude in children, not just for the holidays but for the whole year? Never fear – we’ve read a bunch of the research and have come up with our top five tips for fostering gratitude in kids.

1.A gratitude journal and other records of thanks

Fostering gratitude for your delicious holiday feast is an ideal way of imparting appreciation. Here, Lash Corbett, 8, leans in for a final good-bye to his friend and future dinner, Tom, at Liberty Christian School in Walla Walla, Wash., Nov. 11, 2011. (Jeff Horner/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin/AP)

A simple way to feel more gratitude, many studies have found, is to actively note those things for which you are already grateful. A “gratitude journal” is one way to do this. Many researchers recommend that once or twice a week, people record five or so things that make them feel grateful, whether it’s a sunny day in November or the fact that Baby took her first steps or that Husband cooked dinner even though he had a rough day at work.     

Teens also benefit from gratitude journals. Prof. Jeffrey Froh of Hofstra University compared middle school students who were asked to record five things they were grateful for every day to those who were asked to record five irritants. Froh also followed a control group. After only a few weeks, the students who expressed gratitude felt better than the other students about life, school and relationships.  For younger children, a nightly thankfulness exercise might work better than an actual journal. At the dinner table or at bedtime, for instance, ask your child what he or she is thankful for today. You might want to share your own thoughts, as well. 

Thank you notes are also great gratitude builders; treat them not as chores but as opportunities to make other people feel good. Gratitude letters – not connected to any particular gift, but written to someone to whom your child feels thanks (a school administrator, a soccer coach, the school’s janitorial staff) – are also helpful.

Model gratitude

Arabelle Broscious, 5, of Mount Carmel, left, collects her cash from dental assistant Kelly Long and Dr. J.C. Owens, in Shamokin, Pa., as Owens Dentistry collected candy from area children as part of Operation Gratitude, a program designed to send Halloween candy to U.S. Armed Forces overseas as a way to say thanks, Nov. 5, 2012. (Mike Staugaitis/The News-Item/AP)

Leading by example is one of the key ways to teach your children about gratitude. If you’re rushing through a lovingly prepared Thanksgiving dinner so you can get yourself to the Big Box store in time to get your new flatscreen, what message does that send to Junior? 

It’s sort of hard to get on his case later for not appreciating a home-cooked meal.  

On the other hand, if kids catch you saying “thank you,” they will be more likely to recognize that gratitude is a practiced part of life. (And indeed, many researchers say that gratitude is practiced – it’s an emotional skill that develops and deepens the more one expresses it.) 

So do a self check: Did you thank the woman who handed you your coffee this morning?  Did you thank the driver who stopped to let you cross at the cross walk? Did you thank your husband for doing the laundry? Did you thank your daughter for remembering to hang up her winter coat?  It doesn’t matter whether you think these other people should be doing these actions; expressing gratitude both encourages them and helps you.

Meanwhile, when you catch your child expressing gratitude, reinforce it. Give her a hug and tell her that it makes you feel happy when she notices something you’ve done. 

Explain the cost

The Dalmass family has dinner at their home on May 7, 2012 in Moorsetown, N.J. (Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor Family Dinner)

For a child to be truly grateful, researchers have found, he or she needs to understand that someone intentionally bestowed some benefit on him (whether that’s a new toy or a cooked meal or homework help from Mom), and that the act involved some cost to the giver (i.e., Mom really could have done something else with that hour she spent working on math problems).

This one might sound tricky to parents. It seems like a bit of a downer to start lecturing about how hard Grandma and Grandpa worked during their lives to now have the money to buy a new winter coat for Junior. (And they walked uphill to school both ways!) But there are ways to point out to your kid that others have, in fact, gone out of their way to help her. (“Wow, it’s really great that Nana came to visit you this weekend. I know she had to take a couple days off work, which is challenging for her, so she must really love us.”) Gratitude, as Prof. Robert Emmons,  a University of California, Davis psychologist and leading researcher on gratitude, has written, is both the affirmation of goodness in the world and the process of figuring out where that goodness originates. Recognizing that other people are making an effort to bring good to us is at the heart of gratitude.

Volunteer

Members of the Boys & Girls Club of East Los Angeles make thank you cards for school supplies donated to the Club as part of the Staples for Students National School Supply Drive. Staples for Students is a program designed to encourage teens to collect school supplies for students in need. (Joe Kohen/AP)

It sounds cliché, but doing good for others really does help you. There are a number of studies showing emotional and scholastic benefits for children who volunteer, but central to the gratitude discussion is a child’s recognition through volunteering not just of her own fortune, but of the hard work other people do. (Remember that cost element from Tip No. 3.) Work at a soup kitchen, and you start appreciating the food you have at home. Volunteer at an animal shelter, and you appreciate all the people at your vet’s office who have the job of cleaning up after the dogs and cats. Remember that the emphasis here is not on what your child is doing for other people, but what the volunteer experience is doing for her. 

Let teens take the lead

Two stick figures, Thanks and Giving, are joined by a heart, illustrating the importance of training children to be grateful for what they have. (Dean Rohrer)

Christine Carter, a sociologist and happiness expert at the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, points out in her writing a challenge in teaching teens about gratitude: Developmentally, teens need to break away from their parents. Every time they take your advice or instruction about how to foster gratitude they are, in some ways, remaining dependent on you. (They want you to recognize their wisdom.) So how do you both encourage gratitude and promote independence? 

Carter recommends letting teens lead family gratitude exercises.  Tell your son, for instance, that you’d like to find ways of promoting gratitude – for yourself as much as anyone – and ask him for some suggestions on how to do that. Essentially, let him design the family gratitude project, whether that is journaling, dinner conversations, or anything else. She also suggests bringing gratitude into conversations about challenges. Ask your teen whether anything good came out of a bad experience at school, for instance, or whether there was anything he learned from a fight with his best friend. Don’t be preachy here; the point is to engage with respect, but to also subtly introduce the notion that despite negative experiences, there is still much for which to be grateful. And remember, resistance is your teen's developmental job. Try to be grateful for it. Really.