Yes, we all do it. We make them say “thank you” even when they’re not feeling gratitude or appreciation. Maybe they just don’t understand or recognize what there is to be grateful for? Regardless, over and over I hear parents say to their kids, “Go say thank you” or “What do you say?” or just give “the look.” And when kids just mimic “Thank you” as they’re told many times, our next request is to “say it like you mean it.” Are we just asking them to act grateful? Or do we actually want them to feel grateful?
Why do we do it?
There are a handful of reasons, but mainly we want our children to feel grateful and appreciative for the opportunities, gifts, and kindness that others bestow upon them. But let’s be honest here: many times there’s another motive. We also want them to say “Thank you” to look good when other parents and teachers are watching and listening.
How do we as parents expect them to truly feel grateful when we don’t create the space to allow them to feel what we think they should feel? The message we are often sending is that you just need to say these words when someone gives you something or does something for you.
So what can we do instead so our kids feel gratitude?
There are some powerful ways to nurture the feeling of gratitude in kids by helping our children to recognize when they can be grateful and feel the desire to express it to others. Developing gratitude is like developing our muscles—the more we practice gratitude, the better we become at noticing the good in life, even when times are tough.
Here are a few ways to nurture feeling gratitude:
Help your child identify opportunities for gratitude by asking curiosity questions. You can simply ask, “So, did you enjoy dinner tonight?” or “How did it make you feel when Grandpa gave you the remote-control helicopter?” and then maybe, “Do you want to let him know that?” By asking curiosity questions, you’re drawing your child’s attention to the good in their life that you feel they could feel grateful for. It not only teaches the skill of recognizing the opportunities to show appreciation but also creates the space to express it.
Model gratitude by routinely expressing it yourself in a genuine way. You’re modeling how to appropriately feel and act in the world. And if you express gratitude for both the large and small things, your child will begin to recognize those opportunities as well. One of the best ways to nurture gratitude in your child is by expressing appreciation and gratitude toward them yourself. Your actions will always speak louder than words.
Practice gratitude and appreciation at meals or bedtime. When you are sitting down for dinner at night or tucking your child into bed, include a gratitude practice as part of the routine. Have everyone share three things they appreciated that day or acknowledge some examples of another’s actions or accomplishments.
Volunteer. Exposing children to opportunities to help those who are less fortunate can aid your child in developing not only gratitude but also empathy for others. Moving their focus from themselves to others can widen their perspective in ways that can help them to be more appreciative. It can also help your child identify things that they may have been taking for granted in their own life.
Be mindful of materialism and consumerism. Many children identify material possessions as objects to be grateful for when starting a gratitude practice. It’s important to focus on things that aren’t associated with an object, such as a kind favor, a beautiful sunset, a healthy body and all it can do, and time spent together. Growing your child’s awareness of the intangible sources of joy in their life or environment can have a deep emotional impact.
The ability to feel gratitude has numerous benefits for both you and your child. Research has shown that those who feel and express gratitude are more well-liked by others. (McCullough, M. E. et al., 2002; Wood, A. M. et al., 2008). They also tend to have a more positive life outlook (Emmons, R. A. et al., 2003), do better academically (Hasemeyer, M. E., 2013), and report lower rates of depression (Woodard, K. M. et al., 1998).
Recognizing and expressing gratitude when we mean it are two great skills that we can all continue working on! So slow down and take the time to be intentional about incorporating more gratitude in your and your child’s life. The outcome will be a child who is thankful and appreciates all the good in their life.
Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377–389.
Hasemeyer, M. D. (2013). The relationship between gratitude and psychological, social, and academic functioning in middle adolescence. [Graduate thesis]. http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/etd/4688
McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112–127.
Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., & Maltby, J. (2008). Gratitude uniquely predicts satisfaction with life: Incremental validity above the domains and facets of the five factor model. Personality and Individual Differences, 45(1), 49-54. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2008.02.019Woodard, K. M., Moua, G. K., & Watkins, P.C. (1998). Depressed individuals show less gratitude. Presentation at the 1998 joint convention of the Western Psychological Association and Rocky Mountain Association, Albuquerque, NM.
This article was originally published on the Committee For Children Blog on December 24, 2018