Building Gratitude

Without Being a Nag or a Drag

When it comes to teaching kids gratitude, we often get it really, really wrong. 

We often bring up gratitude as a response when we see a lack of appreciation. 

“You should be more grateful!” 

Who among us hasn’t said those words out of frustration to a kid, a spouse…or heard them? I’ve done both. I bet most of you have as well. 

But when this is the way a kid hears about gratitude, the message they get is: “Gratitude is something I’m not good at. Gratitude is something people are frustrated with me about. Gratitude is something I have to do when I’m bad.” 

They associate gratitude with shame, and when we associate something with shame, we avoid it. 

Or how about this one: “People aren’t going to want to do nice things for you if you aren’t grateful.” 

It’s true that gratitude can create a virtuous cycle, and there’s nothing wrong with encouraging good manners. 

But this kind of talk risks training kids to see gratitude as a means to an end. Research shows we get the benefits of gratitude from feeling genuinely appreciative of what others do for us, not by going through the motions of thankfulness. 

So here’s what you can do:

1️⃣ Focus on the benefits of gratitude—to the giver and receiver.

Kids love knowing what’s going on in their brains. You can explain to them that our brains naturally focus on negative events, but practicing gratitude trains our brains to get better at seeing positive things, and makes us happier and healthier. You can point out the benefits of gratitude to the receiver, too. People are happier and healthier when they receive gratitude as well because it increases the flow of dopamine to the brain. 

With elementary school kids, “this can help you and others, and here’s how” succeeds, where “you ought to” often fails. 

When possible, encourage your kids (especially younger ones) to demonstrate gratitude and show appreciation in ways that allow them to see the recipient’s reaction. The best way to build a habit of gratitude is to show, not tell, how much it means to people. 

2️⃣ Give choices about how to demonstrate gratitude. 

“Would you rather write a thank-you note to grandma or send her a video message?”

“Let’s do something nice for the package carriers this holiday season. What kind of snacks should we leave for them?”

Providing choices can help kids feel that any activity is something that they get to do, rather than something that they’re being told to do, creating a more positive and self-sustaining attitude towards gratitude.   

3️⃣ Practice noticing who does the work we take for granted. 

One of the biggest obstacles to gratitude isn’t entitlement, it’s a lack of mindfulness. Sometimes we literally fail to notice the things others do for us because we don’t stop to think about the work that goes into the things we enjoy. 

One of my favorite questions to ask kids is “How do you think all this is possible?” At the Thanksgiving table, you can take a moment to identify (and thank!) the people who made every dish (and did the dishes). When out to dinner and leaving a tip, you can think with your kid about all the people—from the servers to the cooks to the hosts to the busboys—who make the experience great. If you go see a movie, you can look at the credits and bring their attention to the hundreds of people—actors, directors, producers, animators, assistants—who bring magic to life (to say nothing of the folks sweeping up the popcorn!). 

Late elementary kids tend to enjoy understanding and dissecting how the world works, so this thought exercise is genuinely fun for them, and helps them realize how much hard work goes into creating everything we love.     

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