Gratitude is one of the prime ingredients of happiness. Here’s how to teach kids to be grateful.

Teach children gratitude and they’ll experience better mental health, well being and social connection.

Prisma Staff
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October 25, 2022

More than just appreciation and good manners, gratitude has been getting a lot of scientific attention over the last decade. As psychologists examined the science of gratitude and its impressive positive impacts on individuals and communities, their attention turned to how to gratitude shapes the experience of kids at a young age.

Researchers working at the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center found evidence to suggest that young adolescents (11-13 year-olds) with an attitude of gratitude are happier, better adjusted to all aspects of school, and give and receive more support to and from others. A separate study on teens (14-19 year-olds) showed that grateful teens have better mental health, stronger educational outcomes, and are overall more engaged in their community.


What is gratitude?

The word gratitude gets thrown around a lot. But so often, we conflate gratitude with appreciation, compliments or manners. Get into the definition, and it becomes easier to understand why gratitude could be considered the most human, and the most community-oriented, of emotions.

According to Robert Emmons, a leading psychologist, there are two stages to gratitude:

  1. We acknowledge something good.
  2. We recognize that the source of the goodness is (at least partially) outside ourselves.

In Emmons’ definition, gratitude is an antidote to entitlement. As he explains, “Gratitude implies humility – a recognition that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contribution of others. Gratitude also implies a recognition that it is possible for other forces to act toward us with beneficial, selfless motives.”

In an increasingly transactional world, gratitude is about acknowledging the human connection that has no ulterior motive. That validates each individual to simply be themselves.

What research says about teaching kids gratitude

Another research project, the Raising Grateful Children project led by Dr. Andrea Hussong at UNC Chapel Hill, focused on how families teach gratitude to children. Combining scientific evidence and interviews with parents, they define gratitude as a four-part experience':

  1. What we NOTICE in our lives for which we can be grateful
  2. How we THINK about why we have been given those things
  3. How we FEEL about the things we have been given
  4. What we DO to express appreciation in turn

Often, as parents, we’re looking for the outcome — step four — the part where kids express gratitude, either with words of thanks or acts of kindness. However, the researchers note that young kids tend to need more assistance in getting through all four parts of gratitude, compared with older children and adults. They conclude that when parents and caregivers walk their younger children through the steps of gratitude, they will be more likely to get to the “do” part and exhibit “the appreciative behaviors that parents want to see in their children.”


Tips for teaching kids gratitude at home

1. Model gratitude

Young children are sponges. Comment on someone’s thank you card writing habit and, odds are, they’ll say they saw their loved ones sending notes for every birthday gift that came through the door. If you set the example by introducing a gratitude practice around the dinner table or creating a gratitude jar into which each family member adds words or drawings to represent the things for which they are grateful, it’ll become second nature to them.

Prisma learners build the habit of showing gratitude towards others through shout-outs during the daily ‘stand up’ meeting. As learners recognize the qualities and achievements of others, and the ways that others have contributed to the community, they help strengthen the cohort bond. Kids see that gratitude multiplies itself — there’s always plenty to go around — shifting them away from the comparisons and competition that end up weakening community bonds and self-esteem.

Walking the walk is part of the process. But you also want to talk the gratitude talk with them: If you keep in mind the four stages of gratitude listed above, you can use them to start a dialogue  about what your child notices, thinks and feels about the things they have been given. Try this handout by Dr. Hussong to help you build the habit.

2. Help them make an impact

Community service is a key component of cultivating gratitude, as we strengthen the social fabric by giving of ourselves and to our community to others with no tangible reward in mind. Volunteer work can take many forms: from beautifying public areas, to distributing food to tutoring. It can even include donating any kind of skill, whether it’s shoveling a neighbor’s snowy walkway or designing a flyer for a coat drive.

Regardless of what they choose, kids should feel intrinsically motivated to engage in the work on a regular basis, which means they care about the work and understand why it matters. At Prisma, our intensive, extensive service learning curriculum starts with helping kids understand the importance of community service. Then we help them to look to the intersection of their interests, skills and potential for impact, to identify the type that’s right for them. Throughout, we have them engage in plenty of feedback around how they feel about the experience, setbacks and unexpected challenges, as well as their positive impact.


3. Expose them to different perspectives

Gratitude is all about awareness, which means not taking things for granted. But for kids who have only known one way of life, that awareness can be hard to come by. The more that kids are exposed to the different lives that people lead, the easier it will be to plant that seed of gratitude for theirs.

Engaging kids in current events, as we did in our United Nations theme focused on Syrian refugees, can help them empathize with others and gain awareness of their own good fortune. As kids served as hypothetical ambassadors for real countries and debated how to relocate the million Syrian refugees, they spent time understanding what it’s like to be a refugee, listening to actual stories from kids their age. Help your kids step into someone else’s shoes, and they’ll gain the perspective necessary to experience a sense of gratitude.

Resources on how to teach kids to be grateful

With gratitude making the rounds through the scientific community, the world has taken note. Here are some gratitude-based resources to help you in your efforts.

(These last two resources, while not specifically geared towards parenting, can help you build your gratitude muscles which, in turn, will help you model it more naturally.)

  • For a dose of gratitude on social media that offers exercises, a gratitude journal, and other simple ways to incorporate gratitude into your life and work, try the Gratitude Facebook Slam.
  • This top-rated podcast provides tips for bringing gratitude into your everyday life.

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