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Growing Gratitude

YSB Guest Author: Jenny Friedman
Executive Director of Doing Good Together

Inspiring a sense of appreciation in children means more than tossing off a quick “thank you.” Children who are grateful display a more positive mood and are more likely to provide support to others than those who don’t, according to researchers. Youngsters who are grateful are also happier, more optimistic, and more helpful.

To some extent, self-centeredness is developmental; young children are, by nature, selfish. But research shows that we can cultivate gratitude in children. Appreciation can be learned and practiced. And, besides spelling greater happiness, gratitude can help your child resist the seemingly pervasive sense of entitlement in our world today.

Simple Tips for Building Gratitude in Children

How do you build those gratitude muscles? Here are some family traditions that will help you embed gratitude into your daily routine. Start them now, in this season of giving thanks, and continue them all year long.

A favorite thankfulness ritual. Every day, at dinner or bedtime, have family members name something they’re grateful for. Beyond material goods, encourage your children to focus on the people who have contributed to their well-being. Also encourage them to scan the world for what they find most wonderful.

Model gratitude. Compliment the chef for a nice meal out, thank a friend who lends a hand, thank your spouse for cleaning the bathroom, even express appreciation for a mild winter. Especially thank your children when they do something you appreciate. Watch them follow your example!

Before your Thanksgiving meal. As a family, write down one thing you appreciate about each person who will be at your Thanksgiving table. Leave the notes at their plates, to be found when they sit down. Or have sticky notes available so each guest can express appreciation for something. Then put them up for all to see.

Track your gratitude. Children like collecting and sorting. One idea is to put a “gratitude jar” alongside colorful strips of paper and fun pens. Family members — and visitors, too! — can jot down what they’re grateful for and drop it in the jar. When the jar is full (or maybe at Thanksgiving time), read them out loud. Then form the strips into a paper chain to hang from your kitchen ceiling or along a window. Or hang them on a tree branch.

Focus on thank-yous. Encourage your children to write thank-you notes for more than just presents. Suggest they send notes of gratitude to the people who make a difference in their lives, such as teachers, coaches, babysitters, and bus drivers.

Slow down. This is probably the most difficult suggestion, but think about it: it’s hard to be grateful when we’re rushing around. Take time to realize how much you appreciate the things we might easily take for granted — clean water from the tap, the smell of a flower, a warm house, a new pair of shoes. Express your thankfulness out loud so your children become attuned to the value of gratitude for everyday wonders.

Gratitude Conversations

In addition to adopting these routines, chat with your children about the importance of gratitude — both for the people in their lives and for what they have. Ask things like:

  • Who in your life are you thankful for? Why? What are ways you can express this?
  • How can we remind ourselves to be satisfied with the good things already in our lives?
  • Quickly list 10 things you are grateful for.
  • What is the difference between what you need and what you want? Is it OK for us to want something more when we have so much? What does our family have that makes us lucky?
  • What do you appreciate about our friends, our community, and being in nature?
  • Why is it important to show our gratitude? How can we remember to do that often?

Or, at dinner every night, have each family member answer these two questions: “Who have you helped today?” and “Who has helped you today?” Lighting a candle before everyone speaks can make this ritual more special.

Reading stories about thankfulness can teach powerful lessons as well. Doing Good Together can recommend lots of picture books and chapter books that are perfect for prompting conversations about appreciation, entitlement, and generosity.

Remember, like any skill, gratitude needs to be taught — and practiced. That’s not always easy, but the more we pay attention to nurturing appreciation, the more benefits it will bring.

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