How to Nurture Gratitude in Children and Teens

Many of us have fond childhood memories of Thanksgiving when families typically come together to celebrate their many blessings and enjoy a traditional meal together. While sometimes these holidays also involve various degrees of stress, by and large, the image at least is of a time of focusing on the many positives of coming together as a family sharing a spirit of gratitude.

Your children are watching, listening and learning

I encourage parents to take a few minutes to think about the messages they want to transmit to their children in this season of gratitude and thanksgiving.

In a world where many children are overindulged by all they are given, Thanksgiving can be a time for parents to create or strengthen traditions around recognizing many gifts we each receive (both those that are literal and those that are more abstract, such as feeling safe, secure and loved).

Some families have the tradition before the meal begins of inviting each person to say one thing s/he is grateful for. Sometimes it is done through prayer, either with one or two people praying, or with the invitation extended for everyone to say a prayer of gratitude, even the very young.

The power of gratitude

It turns out that in the last decade or so there has been some interesting research on the power of gratitude that parents might benefit from learning. On the website Positive Psychology Program, the authors state that gratitude is not just an action, it is a positive emotion, which they say is really important because it serves a purpose.

Feeling grateful is the experience of appreciating that someone has provided some kind of gift or mitzvah, a Hebrew term that primarily refers to a commandment but is also associated with some kind of meritorious or charitable act.

Some of the research indicates that students who demonstrate more gratitude are also better at school and more hopeful than their less-grateful peers. “More gratitude may be precisely what our society needs to raise a generation that is ready to make a difference in the world,” stated study researcher Giacomo Bono, Ph.D., a psychology professor at California State University.

Other research findings show more benefits: grateful high-schoolers have higher GPAs, as well as better social integration and satisfaction with life. Gratefulness is linked with optimism, which in turn is linked with better immune health. [If you Google Gratitude Research you will discover a plethora of studies that draw similar conclusions about the benefits of gratitude.]

I encourage parents to be intentional about helping children experience and identify the feelings of gratitude.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Explain what gratitude is. Describe that inner feeling of thankfulness, of appreciation that someone is doing or sharing something as a way to be caring and kind. Share how gratitude is the feeling you have when someone does that. “I feel grateful when someone helps me carry the groceries from the car without even being asked. I appreciate that they want to help. It makes me feel thankful that they are in my life because of the ways they show their love.”
  • Invite children to talk about the things and people for which they are grateful. If at first they aren’t sure, point out examples of things people have said or done that have been helpful, kind or generous. Your teacher makes sure every student can put a special picture up on the bulletin board for everyone to see. You told me how happy that made you feel. That means you were grateful for how kind your teacher was to you and the rest of the students.”
  • Teach them to be descriptive and specific. It is easy to just say a global “Thanks for everything!” It is more meaningful to be descriptive and specific so a person knows exactly what the other person is grateful for. I am so thankful that you pay attention to your younger brother when he shows you something he has made. He is lucky to have someone like you to encourage him. Can you think of things you are grateful for that your little brother gives to you?”
  • Model being grateful. Let your children see you expressing gratitude to others and share with them the times each day you felt thankful for something or someone. I am so thankful we have neighbors who make sure the children in the neighborhood are safe. Just last week, I wrote a little thank you note to Mrs. Jones for letting you stay at her house after school when I had to go to the school conference.”

By discussing and demonstrating gratitude and inviting children to experience that warm, inner glow one has when recognizing the thoughtfulness and kindness of others, our children’s abilities to be more grateful are nurtured.

In some ways, Thanksgiving is not just a one-day holiday that comes around each year; rather, it is a state of being, a light of appreciation that is a beacon for all of us to embrace and pass on to our children.

One more benefit of gratitude that research offers parents and all of us who believe in a Higher Power: According to Dr. John T. Chirban  in the article Much More than a Turkey in the Nov. 14, 2016 edition of Psychology Today, gratitude deepens spiritual connectedness.  “Those thanking a spiritual source report building a positive, constructive connection to a living force of abundant strength for life direction.”

When celebrating Thanksgiving this year, take advantage of the opportunity to teach about and model being thankful, and give your children a chance to share what they feel thankful for.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Do you remember your childhood Thanksgiving dinners? Were you invited to share some of those things for which you were thankful? If so, how has that impacted your overall experience of gratitude? If not, what has helped you learn to be a grateful person?
  2. What are some of the things for which you are grateful today? Have you shared some of these with your children to model gratitude for them?
  3. What are some ways you can use the holiday of Thanksgiving as an opportunity to nurture gratitude in your children and in yourself?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network