We hear a lot about gratitude these days. But when we hear experts telling us we should be teaching our children gratitude, what does this actually mean? And how do we actually go about teaching children gratitude beyond saying thank you anyway?
As a parent who is concerned that children in the Western world seem to have it all these days, I can’t help thinking that teaching children gratitude is more important than ever, and it’s something that I try and do in my own way with our daughter, and I also try to practise it myself.
So with that said, I have author Deborah Salazar Shapiro, whose gorgeous, inspiring and heartwarming new children’s book The Magical Mindful Day teaches the importance of a society based on the principles of love, respect, kindness, and compassion, inspired by her family’s life in exile in Mexico after a bomb detonated next to her childhood home.
Within a few years, she was left with a fractured family, with only her, the youngest of four, and her mother returning to their homeland. At the young age of eight, Salazar Shapiro knew she wanted to dedicate her life to easing the pain and suffering of others, later choosing psychotherapy as her future course of study.
These experiences have culminated in the production of The Magical Mindful Day in which Salazar Shapiro combines mindfulness and heart-based practices to teach children mindfulness. Deborah strongly believes that if children are taught mindfulness, loving-friendliness and compassion at a young age, they can be our hope for a society based on the same, and I’m totally with her on that.
Why is teaching our children gratitude beyond saying “thank you” so important?
Gratitude is defined in the dictionary as “a strong feeling of appreciation to someone or something for what the person has done to help you.” Gratitude makes us feel good and do good things for others. If you are the recipient of an act of kindness or generosity, it can motivate you to do the same for others in the future. Gratitude is a social emotion; fostering it in children can lead to benefits for the greater good.
Why has there been such an interest in practising gratitude lately?
Around the world, people are beginning to recognize the benefits of gratitude. Gratitude in adults has been shown to have physical, psychological, and social benefits, including: lowering blood pressure, improving immune function, increasing happiness and well-being, and decreasing feelings of loneliness and isolation, according to Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, a leading expert in the science of gratitude.
What are the benefits of gratitude for children?
From a very young age, children can learn to have a positive outlook on how they see life—that there are good things in their world and the world at large. They can also develop the ability to see beyond themselves and their individual concerns. Through practising gratitude, children can experience how we are all interconnected and sustained by other people and relationships.
When other people intentionally do generous things, children feel better. In one study, young people experienced more gratefulness when they felt cared for and appreciated by their peers. Gratitude is more than “repaying benefits.” It can help children nurture and strengthen relationships, develop greater social support, and serve as a buffer during difficult times. This translates to increased resilience over time. And when a child is resilient, he or she is better able to have a happier, more satisfied, connected life—and a higher sense of purpose.
In this modern-day world where everything seems so accessible, how can we teach our children to live more gratefully?
I believe we can foster an awareness in children of how others in their community, or outside of it, might not have all the resources they need to live a comfortable life. Thanks to my mother, I cultivated this awareness as a very young child growing up in war-torn El Salvador. I learned to live a life based on gratefulness and not to take things for granted. Parents might want to schedule one or two times per month when the whole family comes together and does service in the community, such as collecting new or gently worn clothes or toys and donating them to an organization; baking cookies together and delivering them to a local firefighter station; or picking up trash at a local park or beach. In this way, they can plant the seeds of appreciation for the gifts they have in their lives.
What are your top tips for raising grateful children?
Gratitude requires discipline and setting an intention. It is a choice. It is easy for anyone to take for granted the gift of life and the gifts we individually have. Here are some tips for how to begin a gratitude practice:
Lead by Example
Research indicates that parents who practice gratitude raise children who are grateful. Therefore, it is important to show them how we express our gratitude with our actions and our words. For example, I consistently model to my three-year-old daughter how and why to say “thank you” to a person who provides any type of service that supports us. To the person who bags my groceries at the store, I say with a smile, “Thank you for your service” or “Thank you for bagging my groceries.” It might feel a little like an imposition for children at the beginning. But what we are cultivating is the intention, the feelings. Over time, the practice can crystallize for children, making it more genuine.
Practice Mindful Breathing Together
Together, take three mindful breaths each day, ideally first thing in the morning. Take a moment to notice and give thanks for your life-sustaining breath and body. Have children come up with the name of organs that support their bodily functions and give thanks to those parts.
Develop Awareness of Our Interdependence
Invite your children to think about the origin of the food they eat as well as other things we use in our everyday lives: a chair, a piece of paper, or a colored pencil. Playfully ask them to “popcorn out” (say whatever pops up!) what things or people they think were involved in bringing that food or object into our hands. Reflecting on ways we are all supported and sustained by other living beings and people can foster an appreciation for those things and beings.
Expressing Gratefulness Together
Encourage children to give thanks for all the products and object in our lives. For example, “Thank you, grapevine, for giving me the grapes I am going to eat,” or “Thank you, tree, for providing the wood for the chair I am sitting on,” and so on.
Create Family Gratitude Rituals
Invite children to draw or write down what are they grateful for throughout the week and place it in a specially designated box or jar. You do the same. Then designate a day of the week for family members to share their appreciations or gratitude; for example, during or after supper (or breakfast), read each family member’s paper out loud and discuss your feelings. Older children might prefer to share a photograph of something that makes them feel grateful. Encourage all family members to describe body sensations and feelings they experience when discussing what they’re grateful for. Having a family gratitude ritual is also a way for your children to hear you expressing what you value and care about, which is another great opportunity for modeling.
Writing a gratitude letter or “letter of thanks” has been shown to be beneficial for older children and adolescents. You can do this active gratitude practice with your child once a month or every other week. Ask them to bring to mind a person (parent, teacher, coach, etc.) who has been kind to them, but who they haven’t had the opportunity to thank. Guide them to select a person they can meet face-to-face, then make a plan to deliver the thank-you letter to that person. Make the activity fun and interesting. Ask children how they might want to add to the family gratitude ritual. Novelty is essential for children to remain involved and excited, so try to change things up from time to time.
And is there anything to avoid?
We should be mindful that all children are different and express themselves differently. A child might not want to write a traditional greeting card or formal letter, for example. Suggest some other options or ask them to come up with their own ways of expressing gratitude to people who gave them a gift or shared an act of kindness and generosity. Letting children choose how they would like to express their appreciation can help them feel more empowered and connected to others.
If there’s only one thing you could say about teaching our children to have an attitude of gratitude, it would be . . .
Gratitude can be healing; it can change our lives and the lives of others. We can give this gift to our children and community every day.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Most of us are born with a good nature. If we nurture in our children good values such as kindness, compassion, and the virtue of gratitude, we can all help to make the world a better place. It is possible.
So there you have it – we can all do our bit as parents to help foster an attitude of gratitude in our children, which can only be good for the future of our world and mankind. Do you try to instil gratitude in your children? What do you think of the suggestions above? Do share in a comment above.