5 tips for instilling gratitude

“What do you say?” I prompt my two little boys regularly.

“Thank you,” they quickly respond.

They know the drill: when someone gives you something or does something to help you, you say thank you.

While I’m happy that my boys express thanks, I have to ask myself, is this gratitude? It’s a habit, definitely, and it’s a good one. But real, deep gratitude goes much deeper than good manners.

Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, defines gratitude as an overarching affirmation of the good in the world around us and an acknowledgement that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves (source). Essentially, grateful people recognize that their lives are better because of other people.

Why does it matter? Studies have repeatedly shown that gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. People who take time to consider and express gratitude are more likely to have a positive outlook on life, satisfaction with their current circumstances, stronger personal relationships, and better physical health.

Consequently, teaching our kids to be grateful is about much more than conforming to expectations about social courtesies. It’s about equipping them with powerful strategies to help them build happy lives.

Encouraging kids to say thank you is important, and it’s a good start toward gratitude. However, just like kids who tell a sibling “sorry” with no actual remorse, “thank you” can become an empty phrase. How, then, do we encourage our kids to develop real gratitude?

Lead by example

Make it a point to say thank you to your children (and everyone else) for the things they do for you. Look for the good that your children do in your family, and express your gratitude for their help. “Thank you for getting your shoes on when I asked” or “Thanks for bringing me that towel I needed.” As you thank your kids, they will feel how nice it is to be appreciated, and they will develop a desire to thank others. As an added bonus, bringing attention to the good makes kids want to repeat positive behaviors.

Give kids opportunities to serve

My little boys love to help others and make them happy. Whether it’s drawing a picture to send to Grandma and Grandpa, making a treat for a neighbor, or gathering toys and clothes to donate to charity, kids love to help. If you need some ideas of ways to get your kids giving, try some of these 100 acts of kindness for kids.

The holiday season is a great time to get kids in the spirit of giving. Encourage your kids go through their toys and pick ones they’ve outgrown to donate. I love this idea of leaving a sack filled with old toys for Santa to give to other kids on Christmas Eve night.

Count your blessings

Set aside time regularly to talk about things that you and your children are grateful for. It doesn’t have to be a long time. For us, it’s just a few minutes at bedtime where we talk with our four-year-old about the good things that happened that day and the things we’re glad we have.

If you have an older child, you can encourage him or her to keep a gratitude journal. Set a goal of writing a few things (3-5 perhaps) each night that you are grateful for. If you’re religious, prayer can be a good way to regularly express gratitude as well.

Teach the value of things

One day I was at the store with my two boys, and my son asked if we could buy a small toy. I explained that we weren’t going to buy it that day because things cost money and we have to work hard and save our money if we want to buy things. His innocent response to my logic made me laugh and cringe. He said cheerfully, “We can just use Daddy’s money!”

That incident made me realize that I needed to start teaching him the value of a dollar. We talked about the value of different coins, visually showed how many coins it takes to buy things we use each day, and I had him start doing chores to earn money.

Now, when he wants something at the store, I can explain, “If you want to save your money for it, we can come back and buy it.” He is beginning to make value judgments about what things are worth his money and the work that he puts into making that money. The best part? Twice, he has decided to use his money to buy something for his little brother. I love his generous little heart.

Focus on the positive

I have a favorite quote from Buddha: “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”

I used to share this with my seventh grade students around Thanksgiving time. I would ask them to think of some of their common frustrations, and then we’d talk about all the “at leasts” in our lives. If a student said, “I hate setting the table!” I challenged them to come up with an “at least” for their complaint. For example: “At least we have food to put on the table.” No matter what the problem, we were always able to think of something good to focus on, rather than the annoyances of life.

I’ve started using this with my four-year-old, and I love the way it shifts his perspective (and mine) when we get frustrated with things in life. When we focus on what we have, rather than the many irritations that inevitably befall us, we begin to realize that we really do have quite a lot to be happy about.

These five ideas are simple, but they help to move kids beyond empty thank yous and toward a deeper understanding and expression of gratitude.

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