As parents we strive to raise children who are kind, caring, considerate, respectful, and empathetic (among other things.) We seek to instill important values such as honesty, integrity, hard work, and respect for others. Another important value we seek to instill is a sense of gratitude in our children.
It is important to remember that this is not something that we are born with, it is something that we learn from those around us. It is also something that develops over time, and it takes a lot of practice. This can be frustrating for parents, feeling that their children are ungrateful and unappreciative. Remembering that this is a learned skill, one that is only starting to develop in the preschool years, can be helpful for parents. Between the ages of 2 and 7 years a child’s worldview is very egocentric or focused on the self. As parents we help them begin to see things from another person’s perspective, but this is something they are going to develop and get more adept at throughout their childhood and well into adolescence.
Another helpful thing to keep in mind is that we teach our children to say “thank you” but gratitude is a key value in life that goes far beyond that phrase. In fact, having a sense of gratitude can build resilience in children, increase self-esteem, decrease aggression, improve physical health, increase optimism, improve relationships, and lead to a greater sense of well-being.
When we look at the neuroscience behind gratitude, research demonstrates that giving, or receiving, gratitude releases powerful neurochemical rewards in our brain called dopamine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are responsible for providing a sense of contentment, security, and happiness that makes us feel good inside. The more we practice gratitude, the stronger those neural pathways in our brain become, leading to a variety of positive psychological, social, and physical benefits.
There are a variety of ways that we can instill a sense of gratitude in our children. Remember that the more often we practice these, the more likely our children are to internalize this value.
Role Model Gratitude Yourself
Children learn more from what they see than from what they are told. We can tell our children all day to “say thank you” and “be grateful” and “appreciate what you have” but that is not going to be as effective as them seeing all of that role modeled for them. The best way to instill a sense of gratitude in our children is to demonstrate what that looks like. Say “thank you” to them, tell them what you appreciate in your life (don’t forget to talk about relationships, spirituality, nature, etc., not just focusing on material things) and show them how to accept gratitude from others.
Have young children that you still have a bedtime routine with? Incorporate gratitude into the nighttime routine. Take a moment to say what they were thankful for that day; don’t forget to share what you were thankful for as well.
Each day look in the mirror and show gratitude for yourself. This helps to boost self-esteem and self-appreciation. It also helps your child see their own worth. Say things about your talents, your virtues, past achievements, or present efforts.
Life can be busy and sometimes we must set an intention to nurture those relationships that we care about. Relationships take effort and when we take time to attend to those relationships it demonstrates how important they are to us. Help your child nurture relationships by spending time with those they care about (not just family but with friends too), drawing pictures, making phone calls, or sending text messages (for those who are little you can help them send emojis to people they love), video-chatting, writing letters, or making or buying small gifts “just because.”
Children can be taught to meditate from an early age. While they may not be able to do it for very long, many children benefit greatly from learning to sit, breathe, and calm their minds and bodies. Meditation for gratitude can instill feelings of joy, hope, and resilience in children. A simple meditation practice in gratitude is to pay attention to the sounds, sights, scents, and feelings around you and to take a moment to just be present with those things. Listen to the birds chirping, take in the scent of fresh cut grass or something baking in the oven, appreciate the feeling of something soft under you or the sight of the sunlight streaming through the leaves in a tree. As they get older you can incorporate teaching them how to meditate on being grateful for talents, virtues, relationships, etc.
This can be done in so many ways, you just simply write down (or draw pictures for those who are young) of things you are grateful for. They could be qualities about yourself or others, something that someone did, something you have, relationships you cherish, memories you cherish, anything that you can be grateful for can be written down and placed in the jar.
Some parents do this leading up to Thanksgiving, writing down something they are grateful for each day and then reading them together on Thanksgiving Day. Some families write something every day and then read them together on a specific day of the week (like every Sunday as a way to wrap up the week.) Other families write something down once a week and then read them at the end of the year. You can adapt this however you would like.
For more ideas on cultivating a sense of gratitude in your child check out the graphic below.