“It’s not happy people who are thankful. It’s thankful people who are happy.” Martin Seligman, psychologist, and educator.
This gem of truth applies as much to children as it does to adults.
There are plenty of studies out there, which support the benefits of gratitude practice, but here are a few key points from Emma Seppala’s blog post on the benefits of gratitude practice. She’s the Associate Director of the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, and she has studied happiness and compassion for years. Some of the benefits she lists include:
Gratitude increases happiness. Thankfulness leads to heightened well-being, and especially positive moods.
Gratitude creates lasting happiness. An attitude of gratitude helps you not only increase positive emotion, but can also sustain it.
Gratitude protects you from both stress and negativity. Gratitude is associated with decreased anxiety and depression and increased social support.
Gratitude leads to stronger relationships. Gratitude strengthens your relationships and helps you create and maintain good relationships and feel more connected.
These are just a few of the many positive effects of gratitude, which benefit people of all ages, and also include improving sleep, strengthening willpower, and increasing social intelligence. Who wouldn’t want more of these good things?
A 2019 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that gratitude is linked to happiness in children by age 5. This means that instilling gratitude in your children at a young age could help them grow up to be happier people.
How do we teach children gratitude?
Teaching our children about being grateful is not easy. It’s a difficult concept for younger children to understand and it can be frustrating process trying to instil this important concept. Don’t worry, there’s a few ways you can teach your children about gratitude that won’t take up too much time.
If you would like your child to be grateful, model gratitude yourself. Say thank you when you mean it and make sure your child knows when you are grateful for something they do too. Children always look to adults to model their own behaviour so make sure you practice what you preach.
Teach Your Child to Say Thank You
It’s about more than just having good manners. Encourage your child to say “Thank you” on a regular basis. Offer gentle reminders like, “Your brother let you go first. What should you say to him?” or “What do you say to Grandma for giving you a cookie?”
While it may seem like forcing a ”thank you” doesn’t stir up any real gratitude, consider it a first step in the process. It can help children start to recognise when others have given them something, whether it’s something tangible like a gift, or intangible like time. So, even if it doesn’t seem like genuine appreciation when your child needs a reminder, encouraging them to verbally express appreciation can be an important learning tool for genuine gratitude down the line.
Ask Gratitude Questions
Once your child remembers to say “thank you” on a regular basis, it can be time to dig a little deeper to ensure that they aren’t just going through the socially-prescribed motions of saying “Thank you.” Start having conversations about what it means to be thankful, and take their understanding of gratitude to a whole new level by incorporating more gratitude components.
The Raising Grateful Children Project at UNC Chapel Hill has revealed that gratitude has four parts:
Notice – What do you have in your life to be grateful for? Are there things to be grateful for beyond the actual gifts someone has given you? Are you grateful for any people in your life?
Think – What do you think about this present? Do you think you should give something to the person who gave it to you? Do you think you earned the gift? Do you think the person gave you a gift because they thought they had to or because they wanted to?
Feel – Does it make you feel happy to get this gift? What does it feel like inside? What about this gift makes you feel happy?
Do – Is there a way to show how you feel about this gift? Does the feeling you have about this gift make you want to share this feeling by giving to someone else?
Whenever your child receives a physical gift or someone shows kindness to them, strike up a conversation that helps them experience more gratitude. You also might start conversations that show how you both think, feel, and respond to the people and gifts you’re grateful for in your life.
Perform Acts of Kindness
There are many things your child can do to show appreciation for other people and things. This might involve returning a favour, like loaning a toy to a friend who is kind, making a gift for someone, caring for an animal, donating items to people in need, assisting with chores, or giving a compliment.
Make it clear that there are many ways to show people that you’re grateful for all they do.
You might even decide to take on a family project, like writing thank you letters to the first responders in your community after a natural disaster. Make it clear that you don’t need to reserve gratitude for those individuals that you know personally—there are many people in the community whom you might feel grateful for as well.
Create a ritual
A simple way to include gratitude in your family’s daily life is to talk about it at the dinner table. At dinner each night, have everyone list one thing they loved about their day. This helps children to see that even on days that feel bad, there is always something we can be grateful for – even if it’s only that we got through it!
Encouraging your child to express their gratitude can help build their resilience and create skills for life. When done together as a family it can also strengthen relationships and build some mindfulness into your day.
Find gratitude in darker times
When your family or your child is suffering through darker times, look for a small piece of light. Being able to acknowledge that you still have something to be grateful for even during this kind of experience is a skill that’s worth working on. Feeling sick? You can be grateful for comfortable pyjamas and books to read. It doesn’t mean that you are forgetting the bad or trying to gloss over it – just look for a tiny sliver of good in every moment.
Keep a gratitude journal. It can be filled with text or pictures, whatever is most appropriate. It can be written in any type of book, on a notepad, or on an electronic device. Anything that works for you will work for you. Yes, even post-it notes will do the trick. Try to add 5 things you are grateful for each day.
You might feel that doing this activity before you start your day works best. This might be a great way to end your day, or you might include it as a lunchtime activity. Do what feels best and be grateful for all this life brings to you.
One fun way of doing this is to write the journal before bed and read it in the morning for a great start.
Make it a game
Play the ABCs of Gratitude. In a seated position, with eyes closed, make your way through the alphabet, beginning with the letter “A.” Think of something you are grateful for that begins with each letter of the alphabet. “I am grateful for Auntie Sue, for bananas, for our cats.” See if you can make it all the way to “z” with a light and grateful heart.
Bedtime Thank You
When you put your child to bed each night, encourage them to think of all the happy things that happened that day. Ask them questions about how those things made them feel. Make this a routine that helps them fall asleep with love and gratitude.
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Nguyen SP, Gordon CL. The Relationship Between Gratitude and Happiness in Young Children. Journal of Happiness Studies. November 2019. doi:10.1007/s10902-019-00188-6