As we approach Thanksgiving, parents and teachers are talking to children about the importance of gratitude and expressing thanks for the many wonderful gifts they’ve been given in life. But these are meaningful lessons to teach year round.
“It is important to teach children gratitude because gratitude is a learned behavior,” said Kerry Maunus, co-founder of “Turkey on the Table,” a Thanksgiving book and activity kit aimed at promoting gratitude. “It is not innate. If your child learns to practice gratitude, they will reap the many benefits gratitude has been proven to provide, including empathy toward others, better physical health, and a stronger ability to overcome obstacles and face adversities.”
Indeed, practicing gratitude has been linked to happiness, confidence, compassion and more. But how exactly can loving adults instill a sense of gratitude in their children? HuffPost spoke to parents and experts to find out.
Express Your Gratitude For Them
Perhaps the most important way to raise grateful children is to model gratitude yourself. It is particularly helpful to let your kids know how much you appreciate them.
“Start by showing your children how thankful you are for their thoughtful or helpful acts,” said Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions. “And be specific about how they made a difference for you: ‘Thank you for playing with the dog while I had my conference call. I really appreciate how you kept him occupied so I could concentrate on the meeting.’ Being the recipient of gratitude will encourage your kids to want to pass it on.”
“Letting our kids know we are grateful for them gives them an embodied experience of what it feels like to be appreciated.”
Indeed, knowing what it’s like to feel appreciated makes it easier to feel and express gratitude for others, said Jennifer Cohen Harper, an educator, public speaker and author of the children’s book “Thank You Body, Thank You Heart.” This is true for both adults and children.
“Letting our kids know we are grateful for them gives them an embodied experience of what it feels like to be appreciated,” she said. “It builds up their sense of self and strengthens your relationship while supporting their capacity to feel and express gratitude for others and the world around them.”
Let Them See You Show Gratitude For Others
Parents can also model gratitude by expressing it in other ways throughout their everyday lives.
“Let them see you giving thanks on a daily basis to the various people in your life ― from the cashier at the grocery store, to the dry cleaner to their teachers,” said McCready. “Your kids are watching and listening.”
Beyond thanking other people, parents can also show appreciation for simple things by pausing and demonstrating it in the moment.
“Show your kids that it’s worth slowing down and taking time to really savor simple things,” said Cohen Harper. “For example, saying, ‘This ice cream is delicious. I’m so glad I have a tongue to taste it with and you to share it with. I’m going to take a super slow bite and let it melt in my mouth. Want to try it with me?’”
Talk About What Gratitude Really Means
“With young children, a lot of times they learn gratitude as a sort of politeness behavior ― mindlessly saying ‘thank you’ as part of a script,” said Giacomo Bono, an associate professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, where he is director of the Positive Social Development and Dynamics Lab.
“Most parents just focus on what kids do, but that think-and-feel part helps kids make meaning of gratitude, take it in and pass it on.”
Bono advised going into detail about the people and things we appreciate, their value to us and our responsibility to acknowledge that to them.
Andrea Hussong, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, echoed Bono’s advice. She developed the Raising Grateful Children project to examine ways that parents can cultivate gratitude in their kids.
“We believe gratitude is an experience with four parts: what kids notice in their lives that they’re grateful to have, what they think about why they’ve received those things, how they feel about them and what they do to show gratitude,” Hussong said. “Most parents just focus on what kids do, but that think-and-feel part helps kids make meaning of gratitude, take it in and pass it on.”
Parents should explain out loud the thoughts and feelings attached to things they appreciate. “Give voice to what’s in your head,” Hussong said. “Say, ’I love the butterfly sweater I received. She knows I love butterflies. That makes me feel good. I’m going to send her a thank-you note.”
Cohen Harper refers to these kinds of examples as “supercharged thank yous” ― statements that include clarifying information like, “Thank you for making dinner tonight. I know it took a lot of effort, and it makes me feel so cared for.”
“Supercharged thank yous offer powerful modeling, and they make the person receiving them feel great, too, so they are a big win-win,” she said.
Focus On Looking For Silver Linings
“Gratitude is about paying attention to the good things we have in life and being able to keep doing that when you’re in a bad mood or something bad happens, which makes focusing on the good things more challenging,” Bono said. “You can model keeping things in perspective by always trying to look at the bright side of something.”
McCready seconded Bono’s advice to emphasize silver linings when unfortunate situations unfold.
“We’re stuck in terrible traffic on the way to visit grandma, but at least we have great music and snacks,” she offered as an example. “Or, ‘The movie we wanted to see is sold out, but now we have time to go roller skating instead!’”
McCready also recommended being careful not to make these small lessons too sermon-like. “Otherwise, our kids will tune right out,” she said.
Establish Gratitude Routines
Parents should consider making rituals based around gratitude a regular part of each day.
“For many families, including mine, bedtime is the perfect time to reflect with our kids on what is happening in their world,” said Cohen Harper. “Ask them to linger over a good experience, describe what it felt like, hold it in their memory for a few moments.”
“Getting in the habit of talking about all of the good things in your life will promote more positivity in your family.”
Other rituals and activities she suggests include keeping a gratitude journal (individually or as a family), going around the dinner table and acknowledging one thing everyone is grateful for, taking a minute at the end of the day to name aspects of our bodies, minds and hearts that supported us that day, or creating gratitude web art projects based around things kids appreciate. The art projects could involve drawing ice cream in the middle and then surrounding it with an adult who worked to buy it, the people who sold it at the shop, the farmer who milked the cow, the cow itself, etc.
“Getting in the habit of talking about all of the good things in your life will promote more positivity in your family,” said “Turkey on the Table” co-founder April George.
There are many books for parents and for kids that focus on the importance of gratitude. McCready published a parenting book called “The ‘Me, Me, Me’ Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World,” which contains many strategies and tips that go from toddlerhood to teens.
Bono is the co-author of “Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character” with Jeffrey Froh. He also developed “Thanks! A Strengths-Based Gratitude Curriculum for Tweens and Teens.”
Cohen Harper said that her book “Thank You Body, Thank You Heart” aims “to nurture gratitude for everyday life in the context of self-compassion.” For parents, she recommends Rick Hanson’s book “Hardwiring Happiness,” as well as the other resources he offers through his podcast and online content.
According to George, “Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World″ by Kristen Welch is a helpful resource for parents. She also recommends the book and activity kit she developed with Maunus. “‘Turkey on the Table’ is a fantastic way for the entire family to engage in the practice of gratitude,” she said.
Volunteer As A Family
“Most of us intend to give back with our time, but life often gets in the way,” McCready said. “But we need to make family service a priority. Brainstorm with the kids about how and where you’ll offer your time and talents. Not only will the people we serve benefit, but our kids will put their own blessings in perspective.”
As a mom of two who works in public grant-making and runs a private giving circle, Ashley Firestone has spent a lot of time thinking about ways to instill gratitude in her children.
“We ask them what problems they see in the world and then do a bit of research on the back end to see what organizations are addressing those issues.”
“We acknowledge our gratitude and try to figure out ways to make that gratitude available to people who aren’t able to access it right now,” she explained, noting that they talk about how to serve others and the responsibility they have to be helpers.
“We have found wonderful local organizations that are connecting with issues that are tangible for kids, like homelessness and food insecurity, and try to make regular time to volunteer as a family alongside and learn from folks who are impacted by and trying to solve the issue,” said Firestone.
They’ve packed “birthday kits” for a food pantry and “winter kits” for a homeless shelter through the organization Repair the World and spent time with volunteers at the Red Hook Farm, which empowers local teens to grow and take home vegetables in a neighborhood with limited access to fresh produce.
“Our kids are the best guide to identify what issues will engage them,” Firestone added. “We ask them what problems they see in the world and then do a bit of research on the back end to see what organizations are addressing those issues. Giving money is one way that we show gratitude. Giving time and making personal connections has been more meaningful for our kids.”