Gratitude is important, especially for young children. They’ll carry these lessons with them throughout life and will be even better for them. Why, though, is it a common lament that children don’t understand how to be grateful?
It all starts with you as a parent. When you have the right tools to teach your child the value of gratitude and how to live a grateful life, you’re setting them up for a vibrant future. If you’re ready to learn about where gratitude begins and how you can instill this value in your children, you’ve come to the right place.
What are the benefits of teaching children gratitude at a young age?
Even at a young age, it’s easy to see the benefits of teaching your children how to practice gratitude. In fact, once you start a daily gratitude practice with your child and they begin to understand it, you’ll likely start to see some immediate benefits. These benefits include:
- Reduced stress
- Increased daily happiness
- Better performance in school
- Reduced materialistic requests
- Improved relationships
It may seem unlikely, but there’s legitimate research behind it. A psychological study by Dr. Jeffrey J. Froh of Hofstra University suggests that gratitude increases self-control and reduces aggressive and violent behaviors.
The benefits don’t stop with childhood, either. Psychology Today reported that people who practice gratitude from a young age have “more social connections and fewer bouts of depression, which affects 20.9 million [adults].” In addition, research by Dr. Robert Evans, one of the world’s leading experts on gratitude, suggests that there are measurable physical, psychological, and social benefits that come with gratitude throughout life. Consider that people who practice gratitude:
- Feel better about their lives overall
- Have fewer physical issues
- Eat healthier and prioritize exercise
- Sleep more soundly
- Live almost seven years longer than the average person
Being thankful might seem simple. The truth is that gratitude teaches children that they have benefitted from the kindness of other people, and in turn, they’re more likely to perform these kinds of acts for others throughout their lives.
When is the best time to start teaching gratitude?
Gratitude might seem like a simple act of appreciation from the outside. In reality, being grateful means much more than saying thank you. Gratitude is a much broader experience and actually requires a set of complex socio-emotional skills. Understanding how your child develops these skills will clue you in on the best time to start teaching your child gratitude.
Understandably, infancy isn’t going to be the best time to start teaching gratitude. That being said, children between 15 and 18 months of age can begin to understand that they are dependent and that their parents do things for them. At this point in your child’s life, daily gratitude lessons might not sink in.
Once you move past infancy and into the toddler years, children can begin to express gratitude for specific things in their lives. So by the time your child turns two or three, you’ll be able to start teaching basic concepts like acts of appreciation. Simple tasks like saying thank you or talking about their favorite toys are good places to start. Around age four is when children start to understand less materialistic and more ambiguous concepts surrounding gratitude.
At the end of the day, choosing when you’ll teach your child about being grateful is up to you. But it’s important to note that these concepts can sink in as early as your child’s toddler years.
How can I start teaching my child gratitude?
Help Your Child Understand the Anatomy of Gratitude
Earlier, we noted that fully understanding and practicing gratitude requires some complex socio-emotional behaviors. Fortunately, researchers at UNC Chapel Hill have done research to help simplify and explain these behaviors. In fact, their research suggests that the experience of gratitude has four distinct parts:
While older children are more likely to go through these motions almost automatically, a younger child will require some guidance. That’s where your gratitude lessons are going to be crucial. Once your child begins to connect these four things into one fluid experience, their gratitude mindset will solidify.
So what can you do to help your child learn the anatomy of an act of gratitude? Here are some key questions you need to ask that will help teach your child to practice each step of an act of gratitude.
- What do you notice in your life that you are grateful for? Did you receive a gift recently? Are the things you are thankful for material or are they feelings, like love?
- Why do you think you’ve received the things you’re thankful for? Do you think you owe the giver something in return?
- How does the gift you’ve received make you feel? What about this gift makes you feel good or happy?
- What are you going to do to show how you feel about your gift? Does this gift make you want to share your feelings about it?
Moving children through these questions every time they receive a gift or feel thankful can help them understand how to process and act on their feelings. You’re effectively guiding them through the process of feeling, expressing, and acting on their gratitude.
Model the Behavior You Want to See
Children often mirror their parents and older children in their household. This is how children begin to learn many of the social skills and behaviors that will carry them throughout their lives. So if your child is raised in a household where you and your partner aren’t living a grateful life, it’s going to be difficult to instill that value.
So before you begin teaching your child gratitude, make it a part of your life as a parent. Having a solid daily gratitude practice in your life before you bring your child into the fold can make it that much easier to practice gratitude as a family in the future.
Include Discipline as a Part of Gratitude
Practicing gratitude every day sounds like a peaceful activity. And it is! However, it’s not without a good measure of self-discipline. Teaching discipline to your children goes hand in hand with teaching them gratitude. Making gratitude a true value that your children carry throughout life means teaching (and practicing) the self-discipline necessary to be grateful every day.
Once you and your children have formed this habit of gratitude, it becomes easier for children to move through the motions of gratitude on their own. Discipline in your family practice of gratitude will ultimately help internalize your teachings.
How can the whole family practice gratitude?
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways for the whole family to practice gratitude. If you’re stuck for ideas, here are a few activities you could consider to help your family create a grateful life.
Helping others without receiving anything in return is an excellent way to cultivate gratitude. Whether it’s volunteering at a local soup kitchen, sorting non-perishables at a food bank, or participating in a day of service around your neighborhood, this is an activity the whole family can get behind.
Share Gratitude with Each Other
Even an act as simple as sharing what you’re thankful for at the end of every day during dinner can get the whole family feeling grateful. Try going around the dinner table and asking everyone to share one thing they’re grateful for or one thing that made them happy that day.
Create a Family Gratitude List
This one is easy. Simply create an empty list and ask everyone to add to it when they’re feeling thankful. Making the list can be an excellent family crafting activity, as well. Just make sure you place it somewhere that’s easily accessible to everyone! Somewhere communal like the kitchen or living room could be ideal.
Set Aside Time to Journal
Make sure every member of your family has a small journal where they can write down the things they’re grateful for. You can customize these journals however you like. This is an ideal activity if you have older children who may not want to share their thoughts out loud. Set aside a few minutes every night when everyone writes down a few things they’re grateful for.
Start a Blessings Jar
Similar to your family gratitude list, this is a simple exercise that anyone in the house can participate in. Simply leave a good-sized jar in a communal area and make sure there’s plenty of paper and a pen nearby. This way, anyone can write a quick note and drop it in the jar. It only takes a minute, but it can really help ground the gratitude experience for whoever is writing their note.
Gratitude Can Guide Us to a Happier Life
Living a grateful life has a ripple effect. When we practice gratitude, others notice. They may even start practicing gratitude more regularly as a result of our actions.
That ripple starts with you. You are your child’s first and biggest influence in the world, which means teaching them gratitude at a young age can make a world of difference in their lives and in the lives of the people they grow to know and love.