Skip to Content

How To Teach Your Child Gratitude

| What is Gratitude? | Why Is It Important? | How To Teach Your Child Gratitude | Activities That Foster Gratitude |

In our daily lives as parents, the topic of gratitude comes up more often than you might expect. 

We may wonder if our child will say “thank you” after receiving a gift. 

Sometimes we may question if our child really feels grateful for the opportunities they are given. 

Although the cultural expectation for politeness is sometimes part of the picture, many times there is a deeper issue at play. 

Most of us want to encourage our children to have a sense of gratitude for the gifts or opportunities they are provided. 

We want to avoid raising children who have a sense of entitlement. 

But why is being thankful an important quality to foster in children? Is it helpful for their well-being and development? 

The science of gratitude offers us great insight into these questions. 

girl receives a gift gratitude

What is Gratitude?

Gratitude is a focus on seeing the positive aspects of life. It means noticing the goodness in life. You feel thankful for what you have, instead of focusing on what you lack or comparing yourself to others. It is also an emotion that we feel when someone helps us or does something kind for us​1​.

In psychology, gratitude is a tricky concept to define and psychologists have long debated its definition.

Some people experience it as an emotion, such as joy or sadness. 

Others interpret it as a positive mindset or thinking. 

Yet some scholars have focused on it as a behavior that involves the action of saying “thank you.”​2​

In general, it represents one’s willingness to recognize that they have been the beneficiary of someone’s kindness​3​.

Why is Gratitude Important?

Gratitude involves being grateful, acknowledging all that we have been given, and showing appreciation. 

It is a powerful practice that can transform our approach to life.

Decades of research have illustrated the positive impact of gratitude on many aspects of psychological and social well-being.

Here are some of the benefits of gratitude.

Mental health benefits

Research has shown that grateful people tend to achieve higher levels of happiness, life satisfaction, and mental health over time.

In addition, gratefulness is associated with lower rates of mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation​4​.

High school students with more gratitude experience higher optimism, less envy, and fewer depressive symptoms​5​.

Academic performance

High school students who showed higher levels of gratefulness tended to be more committed to the school​6​.

They also tend to perform better academically and have a higher level of school satisfaction.

Relationships and Social Life

When a person is focused on noticing the positive, they may take note of the great relationships and social support they receive from those around them.

Studies have found an association between gratitude and the way people form and maintain strong relationships​7​, as well as the way they view friends and family support​8​.

It seems that having a grateful orientation towards life inspires people to take notice of the support and help they receive from those in their social circle. 

Gratitude on people may also prompt a more forgiving attitude toward others which benefits personal relationships​9​.

Grateful teenagers tend to be more optimistic and show more prosocial behaviors​10​.

Their gratitude has been shown to predict healthier relationships, as well as help adolescents feel that they are part of a friend network and have social support. 

How To Teach Your Child Gratitude

Children, as well as adults, seem to benefit from being thankful and it is worth our time and energy as parents to consider how to nurture this quality in them. 

Gratefulness inherently requires a certain level of social awareness. 

In order for a child to feel grateful or express gratitude, they have to understand a bit about the social dynamics at play. 

This involves being able to understand the intentions or thoughts of another person. 

In children, this skill (known as the theory of mind) generally does not emerge until they start developing the prefrontal cortex in the brain around the age of 4​11​.

This is not to say that we cannot try to foster the concept of gratitude in our children earlier, but our efforts will be more fruitful once children have gained a better understanding of other people’s intentions. 

Parents often coach their children on the outward signs of appreciation such as saying “thank you” when receiving a gift. 

While these manners can be helpful (and socially expected), scholars suggest there is more to fostering deep gratitude in children than just these outward signs. 

In order for these manners to feel meaningful and not just empty words, children need to be guided to recognize and understand the feelings of gratitude​12​.

Awareness

The cultivation of gratitude may start with awareness.

Children need to learn how to recognize the receipt of a gift or action given by another person. 

Parents can help by encouraging children to notice the grateful moments when another person does something for them or gives them a gift.

Attribution

Children learn about why the other person gave them a gift and the meaning behind it. This might mean pointing out that the gift-giver remembered their birthday (or another reason for giving a gift). 

Parents can help children understand this process by discussing how the person gave the gift (or kind action) because they were intentionally thinking about them and their feelings.

Positive Emotions

Children learn to recognize the positive feelings they experience from the gift. Additionally, they learn to recognize that these positive feelings are due to the giver’s kind behavior. 

The combination of the attribution and the emotion together helps children understand the meaning of the gift. 

Furthermore, when children recognize these good feelings, it results in an experience of gratitude towards the giver.

Behavior

Children learn the expression of gratitude through behavior and practice.

Parents can encourage children by offering them the chance to express their appreciation in a variety of ways (e.g., saying “thank you,” writing a note, giving a hug, or other thoughtful gestures.). 

Modeling

Researchers have found that grateful parents tend to have children who are also grateful to others.

In order to foster a sense of appreciation in our children, we must model acts of thankfulness for them in daily life. Demonstrate gratitude not just to others, but also to our children.

When our kids help us out at home, recognize their effort with gratitude rather than taking it for granted.

Activities That Foster Gratitude

Parents who are looking for more ways to help their children develop a sense of gratitude can find some additional activities below.

Note that while research on these types of gratitude practices is promising, evidence is still limited and scholars hesitate to make sweeping conclusions about their effectiveness. 

Even so, these gratitude activities are great for bonding and aiding children in their understanding of being grateful. 

Gratitude Journal

One common activity used to help individuals focus on thankfulness is the journaling or listing process. Each day, the person is encouraged to list several things for which they are grateful. 

Gratitude journaling has been shown to reduce anxiety and increase optimism significantly​13​.

Additionally, when used in schools, the listing activity was found to be associated with better attitudes toward school among students. Students who completed these thankfulness lists felt better about their school experience​14​.

Gratitude letter writing

Writing a letter of gratitude to someone who gave a gift or did a kind action is another activity used to cultivate appreciation.

In gratitude interventions, researchers found that gratitude letter writers were happier overall even 2 months following the activity​15​.

References

  1. 1.
    McCullough ME, Kilpatrick SD, Emmons RA, Larson DB. Is gratitude a moral affect? Psychological Bulletin. Published online 2001:249-266. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.127.2.249
  2. 2.
    Wood AM, Froh JJ, Geraghty AWA. Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review. Published online November 2010:890-905. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005
  3. 3.
    Gulliford L, Morgan B, Kristjánsson K. Recent Work on the Concept of Gratitude in Philosophy and Psychology. J Value Inquiry. Published online July 23, 2013:285-317. doi:10.1007/s10790-013-9387-8
  4. 4.
    Portocarrero FF, Gonzalez K, Ekema-Agbaw M. A meta-analytic review of the relationship between dispositional gratitude and well-being. Personality and Individual Differences. Published online October 2020:110101. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2020.110101
  5. 5.
    Froh JJ, Emmons RA, Card NA, Bono G, Wilson JA. Gratitude and the Reduced Costs of Materialism in Adolescents. J Happiness Stud. Published online March 11, 2010:289-302. doi:10.1007/s10902-010-9195-9
  6. 6.
    Goldberg ME, Gorn GJ, Peracchio LA, Bamossy G. Understanding Materialism Among Youth. Journal of Consumer Psychology. Published online January 2003:278-288. doi:10.1207/s15327663jcp1303_09
  7. 7.
    Algoe SB, Haidt J, Gable SL. Beyond reciprocity: Gratitude and relationships in everyday life. Emotion. Published online 2008:425-429. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.8.3.425
  8. 8.
    Wood AM, Maltby J, Gillett R, Linley PA, Joseph S. The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies. Journal of Research in Personality. Published online August 2008:854-871. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2007.11.003
  9. 9.
    DeShea L. A scenario-based scale of willingness to forgive. Individual Differences Research. 2003;1(3).
  10. 10.
    Froh JJ, Yurkewicz C, Kashdan TB. Gratitude and subjective well‐being in early adolescence: Examining gender differences. Journal of Adolescence. Published online August 29, 2008:633-650. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2008.06.006
  11. 11.
    Nelson JA, de Lucca Freitas LB, O’Brien M, Calkins SD, Leerkes EM, Marcovitch S. Preschool-aged children’s understanding of gratitude: Relations with emotion and mental state knowledge. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. Published online March 28, 2012:42-56. doi:10.1111/j.2044-835x.2012.02077.x
  12. 12.
    Rothenberg WA, Hussong AM, Langley HA, et al. Grateful parents raising grateful children: Niche selection and the socialization of child gratitude. Applied Developmental Science. Published online May 24, 2016:106-120. doi:10.1080/10888691.2016.1175945
  13. 13.
    Kerr SL, O’Donovan A, Pepping CA. Can Gratitude and Kindness Interventions Enhance Well-Being in a Clinical Sample? J Happiness Stud. Published online January 19, 2014:17-36. doi:10.1007/s10902-013-9492-1
  14. 14.
    Froh JJ, Sefick WJ, Emmons RA. Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of School Psychology. Published online April 2008:213-233. doi:10.1016/j.jsp.2007.03.005
  15. 15.
    Froh JJ, Kashdan TB, Ozimkowski KM, Miller N. Who benefits the most from a gratitude intervention in children and adolescents? Examining positive affect as a moderator. The Journal of Positive Psychology. Published online September 2009:408-422. doi:10.1080/17439760902992464

About Amy Webb

Amy is a parenting writer who is passionate about bringing child development research into the lives of parents so they can use it to inform their decision-making. In her writing, she brings together her academic training in Human Development and Family Sciences with real-life experience as a mom to two rambunctious boys.

    Disclaimer

    * All information on parentingforbrain.com is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *