Ways to Practice Gratitude with Your Kids (and Reasons You Should)
people holding hands at a dining table

Ways to Practice Gratitude with Your Kids (and Reasons You Should)

Ways to Practice Gratitude with Your Kids (and Reasons You Should)

 It's Thanksgiving, Now Be Grateful

When I was a child, the expectation at our Thanksgiving dinner was that we took turns going around the dinner table and sharing something that we were grateful for. Inevitably, my parent expressed gratitude about our family's health, and I was probably usually grateful about something like continuing to get grades {can you see the adult me rolling my eyes?}. I can't recall what my two brother's claimed to be grateful for ... but given the fact that I can't remember I'm guessing it probably wasn't "having an attentive sister".

Truth be told, I often fretted about having something to say at that meal - it felt like a lot of pressure to come up with something that would be adequate enough to cover the other 364 days when I didn't express this same degree of gratitude out loud. 

That didn't mean that I wasn't grateful those other 364 days, or that we didn't find ways as a family to express gratitude in other ways and at other times. Because we did. I saw my parents treat others gracefully and freely express their gratitude for other's actions, time, thoughtfulness, or efforts. I said please and thank you not just because it's what you are supposed to say, but because I saw the positive effect it had on other people when I did.   

Gratitude and Happiness

Numerous bodies of research have reported, strongly and consistently that gratitude is positively associated with increased happiness. Regularly expressing gratitude has been shown to help people feel more positive, relish positive experiences more deeply, improve health, be more well-equip to deal with adversity, and helps them build stronger relationships.

And if science hasn't already provided adequate evidence of this last point, surely Ted Lasso has proven that the hard work of building a community that supports and genuinely cares for one another starts with gratitude (biscuits a little extra kindness don't hurt either).  

Want to know the craziest thing: research has demonstrated that gratitude is linked to happiness in children as young as 5! Even though they might not be able to fully define the word gratitude, they can express the feeling and benefit from it. 

Gratitude Comes in Many Forms

The good news is that gratitude isn't one-dimensional; people feel and express gratitude in myriad ways. Gratitude can be applied to the past, present, or future and could be self-reflective or externally focused. It could be for something as small as your neighbor helping you move your heavy couch, or as significant as the opportunity for a promotion and raise.

Regardless of the inherent or current level of gratitude you feel, it's a quality that individuals can successfully cultivate further and, equally importantly, you can help your kids develop very early on. Here are some suggestions for how. 

Model Gratitude

As with modeling healthy eating, when your kids watch you practice and express gratitude to the world around you, they will begin to internalize and practice this themselves. Thank the clerk who bagged your groceries, the flight attendant for helping you with your luggage, the woman who held the door for you. 

In addition to showing gratitude, talk about it openly with your kids. I often tell my children about how grateful I am for their help, that I get to do work that I love, that someone has helped me when I needed it. Gratitude can be expressed for things in the natural world too - that the rain is feeding the plants, that we can see such a beautiful sunset or hear the birds.

Perform Acts of Kindness 

Whether for someone you know, or someone you don't, find ways that you and your kids can perform random acts of kindness. Write letters to your town's first responders or the teachers in your child(ren)'s school. Make art for the nursing home or local ICU. Shovel your elderly neighbor's driveway. Even something as simple as donating unused and unwanted (but still in good condition!) toys and books to local non-profits or YMCAs provide valuable opportunities to talk about gratitude and to show appreciation. 

Ask Gratitude Questions

According to research from the Raising Grateful Children Project at UNC Chapel Hill, gratitude has four parts:

  1. Noticing – Recognizing the things you have to be grateful for.
  2. Thinking – Thinking about why you’ve been given those things.
  3. Feeling – The emotions you experience as a result of the things you’ve been given.
  4. Doing – The way you express appreciation.

Researchers found that most (85%) parents stayed focused on what children do to show gratitude (like prompting kids to say thank you) only 22% asked their kids to go deeper and think about how they felt when something good happened (i.e. they received a gift) or to consider why the gift-giver had taken the action they did. This kind of reflective thinking is important for building the gratitude muscle. 

You can help your kids practice experiencing gratitude more deeply by asking them questions like these: 

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?

Pausing to notice and practice gratitude just before eating has numerous benefits beyond increasing your happiness. Mindful eating has been shown 

Establish a Family Gratitude Ritual

Create space for the regular practice of giving thanks and invite everyone to participate. Although you might think gratitude should be spontaneous, just like most things it also requires practice and, in doing so, the more spontaneous appreciations will come.

  • Have everyone takes turns during dinner or just before bedtime sharing one thing that they were grateful for that day.
  • When kids are old enough to write, keep a journal and practice noting three things each day. Repeats and single word answers are acceptable! This isn't about length, but about creating a habit. 
  • During the ride home from school, ask your children to reflect on a time when someone helped them (or a time when they were scared/lonely/uncertain) and how they felt knowing that there was someone who cared. 
  • Each Sunday night at dinner, everyone discusses how they think they might express gratitude and who they’ll express it to over the course of the week.