10 Ways to Teach Kids Gratitude
That first spontaneous “thank you,” sweetly pouring out of a child as if it was an entirely reasonable response. Everyone stops, wondering if that really just happened or if it was just the sleep deprivation playing tricks again. It’s an occasion many parents remember with a sense of pride, even accomplishment. Their child gets it and this raising a functional kid thing might actually be working! It’s an important moment for most parents because teaching gratitude is important to most parents. Although gratitude looks unique in every family, most agree that it is a critical virtue to instill in their kids. Even so, just how beneficial gratitude is to both emotional and physical well-being is often unknown.
Gratitude goes far beyond thank yous and etiquette. It can literally change the brain’s chemistry and set children and families up for increased health and happiness throughout the lifespan.
The Reseach on Gratitude
The Emotional Benefits of Gratitude
Numerous research studies have looked at the impact of gratitude on both our physical and emotional health. Dr. Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, has conducted multiple studies on the link between gratitude and well-being. He reports that people who practice gratitude consistently report increased positive emotions like feeling happier, more optimistic, alert and forgiving than those in a control group. His research also found that these people are more likely to be kind and helpful to others and showed a reduction in many toxic emotions, including envy, frustration, regret, and resentment.2
A 2012 study by the University of Kentucky echoed these findings. According to Psychology Today, study participants who showed more attributes of gratitude were also less likely to retaliate against others, even after negative feedback, had a decreased desire to seek revenge and showed increased sensitivity and empathy toward others.3
The Physical Benefits of Gratitude
Amazingly, research has shown that gratitude has a significant impact on physical health as well. A 2009 study by the National Institute of Health, showed that our hypothalamus (the part of our brain that regulates body functions like appetite, sleep, temperature, metabolism, and growth) was activated by acts of gratitude and kindness. Participants who practiced gratitude also showed a 23% decrease in the stress hormone cortisol and, in turn, were flooded with the brain chemical dopamine. Since dopamine makes us feel a natural high, participants were more intrinsically motivated to continue practicing gratitude.4
How We Cultivate Gratitude
There’s no doubt that gratitude is an essential ingredient for increased physical and mental well-being. But what does it look like to practice gratitude in our daily lives? The answer might be surprising. Dr. Brene Brown, a well-known vulnerability researcher, spent 12 years analyzing what people whom she referred to as “wholehearted” had in common. She found that every person she interviewed who described themselves as joyful shared an important thing in common: they actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joy to these practices. Contrary to her original beliefs, she found that simply valuing the virtue of gratitude or having an “attitude of gratitude” was not enough because it did not translate into changes of behavior.1
Gratitude has to be intentionally and actively practiced.
Introducing Gratitude To Kids
What also emerged from Dr. Brene Brown’s research was that gratitude could be learned.1 This provides a fantastic opportunity to positively impact kids, even at a young age. Since the young brain is rapidly developing, it serves as a prime environment for the introduction of positive skills. Although teaching the concept of gratitude to young kids requires flexibility and creativity, it’s absolutely possible. There is no one perfect way to practice gratitude that leads to increased happiness and life satisfaction. Every child is different so each practice will resonate differently within a family. However, these are some practices that many families have found useful and even fun for their kids and can provide a starting point for intentionally adding gratitude practices into a family’s routine.
10 Ways to Actively Practice Gratitude In Your Family
1. Having a Family Gratitude Jar
To make a gratitude jar, merely put a container in a central location of your house. Daily, weekly, or at random intervals throughout the week, encourage each person in the family to write something they are grateful for on a piece of paper and add it to the jar (or have younger kids dictate). One of the added benefits of the gratitude jar is that the paper can be pulled out and re-read at any time. This can provide a good re-set in a challenging moment. Dating the paper and writing the kids name on it can make for a fun keepsake to reference later.
2. Keeping a Gratitude Journal
this is another one that can be referenced later in a challenging moment. A gratitude journal can be done as a personal or family activity. Have the child pick a notebook dedicated to writing down things they are grateful for and let them decorate it. Regularly help the child write down what they are thankful for in the notebook and keep it someplace special. If the child can’t read or write, it’s fun to read their journal back to them from time to time. These journals can be a really special keepsake for later.
3. Donating Old Toys and Clothes
When a child has outgrown their clothes or no longer uses a toy, encouraging them to donate it can be a great way to practice gratitude. Involve the child as much as possible in the process by researching together and even taking them along to donate, if appropriate.
4. Write Thank You Notes
Through writing thank you notes, children not only practices showing gratitude, they practice thinking about why they are thankful for something or someone. If a child is too young to write their own note, they can draw a picture or just dictate words.
5. Do a Gratitude Scavenger Hunt
This activity can be played outside or inside. The child walks around the room or yard and finds items on a scavenger hunt list. Once everything has been found, it can be helpful to discuss the concept that everything was already there, all they had to do was stop and notice it. Younger children will need lots of suggestions and cues, but with practice, will get better at identifying the items. A free printable gratitude scavenger hunt can be found HERE.
6. Do a Gratitude Meditation
Doing a gratitude meditation individually or as a family can be incredibly powerful in cultivating gratitude at any age. Meditations can be as simple as thinking of a specific person or thing and why you are thankful for them or more formal, by listening to a guided meditation. We provide several guided meditations on cultivating gratitude that has been adapted for young kids. You can download a free one HERE or go to yogamentary.com to gain access to all of our meditations for young kids.
7. Saying Grace
Although many people attribute saying grace with religious practices, it doesn’t have to have to be. Saying grace can be as simple as going around the dinner table and saying something that each person is thankful happened that day. The act of intentionally starting a conversation about gratitude at a regular interval can be a very impactful practice.
8. Creating Gratitude Art
Gratitude art is merely expressing gratitude for something or someone through art. There are limitless possibilities. You can download directions for a fun gratitude art project for younger kids HERE.
9. Read and Reread Books About Gratitude
There are literally hundreds of books that creatively introduce the idea of gratitude to young kids. Intentionally reading these books to your kids is a great way to teach the concept of and show examples of how to practice being grateful. Remember that children get vastly different things out of a book at 12 months then they do at 3 years. Keep rereading it as your child grows.
10. Intentionally Set an Example Of Gratitude
Kids watch everything their parents say and do. Deliberately practicing gratitude for and in front of your kids can leave a lasting impact. Thanking kids for all they do in creative ways, like making them thank you cards can be very moving.
Parenting young kids is challenging and busy. It often feels like the exact moment that parents finally figure out a solution that works, their child has moved on, passed through that mood or developmental stage or schedules change and everyone is back to ground zero. That’s why this isn’t a perfect science nor is it a “how to guide” for making your family more grateful. These are merely ideas that many parents have found useful, even doable, to weave gratitude practices into their ever-shifting family.
Most parents report that they genuinely want to instill an increased sense of gratitude in their kids and even more so after learning of its long term benefits. However, it’s hard to start new habits, and many people don’t know where to start. Although not every tool mentioned is realistic for every family or every child, many parents have found at least one or two that they feel are beneficial. This could be the first step to bringing a new habit of gratitude into the family and setting everyone on a course of increased happiness and positivity.
For our complete collection of age-appropriate guided meditations, yoga videos and breathing exercises adapted for young kids download our App!
- Brown, B. (2010) The gifts of imperfection. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing
- Emmons, R. (2010, November). Why gratitude is good. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/.
- Morin, A. (2015, April). 7 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201504/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-gratitude
- The health benefits of gratitude: 6 scientifically proven ways being grateful rewires Your brain and body for health. (2019, March). Retrieved from https://www.consciouslifestylemag.com/benefits-of-gratitude-research/