The Secret to Teaching Children Gratitude

By: Erica Kosal, Ph.D.

Appreciation and gratitude are positive attributes for which we should aspire. Not only does it make for a more pleasant community, research shows gratitude contributes to your happiness. Ask any expert or any person who has gone through adversity, coming out stronger on the other side, what one of their “life-savers” was and you will consistently hear the key: gratitude. As adults, seeing the good in various situations can be difficult at times, but we do have the ability to consider things from various angles and, if we pay attention, we can find something of value, something for which we are grateful.

As children, being grateful for what we have, is more difficult. In a world of comparisons and instant gratification, pausing to consider the various angles of a situation is silly. Psychologists tell us that the sizing up and the “look at what I can do and you can’t” stage marks a period where children are beginning to test the limits of their bodies, trying to make sense of the world. If left to stay in this “me” trance, however, a child will never be afforded the opportunity to see multiple perspectives, to understand the role hard times plays in her life, and to grow her resilient skills.

My children, ages 7 and 5, are similar to many of their peers. They exhibit very tender, loving qualities and yet, they can also have a flare-up of selfish priorities. Our job as parents is to help our children balance these two sides of the same person coin: self-ego and community-love. It is important to pay attention to what your body and mind are telling you. It is important to be mindful of your needs and to stand up for yourself at the appropriate times; however, it is also vital to put the ego in its proper place. It is imperative to understand how the “me” fits into the broader “community”. This distinction is rooted in gratitude.

Gratitude can be defined as “the quality or feeling of being grateful or thankful.” It is hard to feel grateful if you are in the middle of crisis. It is hard to feel grateful if you are completely focused on self and how you have been wronged or why life isn’t fair. It is difficult to feel grateful if your heart is heavy. Gratitude fosters happiness and well-being. Gratitude has also been linked to health.

So, it is quite ironic that it is difficult to feel gratitude if you are unhappy or in stress, but that if you are grateful it can help you relieve the stress and become happy.

So….the real issue to address is how do we teach our children to be grateful? I have read many articles on the topic, listened to several presentations, and have tried to incorporate some of the techniques that resonated with me. For example, at dinner I regularly ask my kids “What is one thing that happened today for which you are grateful?” I have also tried gratitude journals with my older child and have pointed out kind acts of other people and then expressed my own gratitude towards those people. All of these efforts attempt to foster gratitude.

I find these simple techniques to be useful, but was not completely satisfied with their effectiveness. Then I stumbled upon the answer. I heard something on the radio that was not related to gratitude. In fact, the interview had nothing to do with resilience or gratitude or happiness; however the interviewee said something that reminded me how important it was to stop and be still for periods of time. He commented that he was as productive as he was in work because he did nothing for 2 hours every day. During this “break” certainly the man was doing something – he was reflecting, considering, praying, meditating, and/or solving. I too found myself nodding with the agreement that sitting and thinking was a good thing. It was during these times that I felt connected to life, my community. I could see the positive there, even in times of extreme sadness. During my reflective times, I felt a weight lifting off my shoulders. All because I was quiet, still, and open.

This is the key. This is the secret to gratitude and ultimately, happiness. Staying in the present by reflection and stillness. While it is tough to ask a 7 year old or a 5 year old to be still and just “hang out”, avoiding the TV or videogames or toys, it is entirely possible for the break. If presented in the right package, your child will be a player. Tonight I tried this with my 5-year-old daughter. I simply asked her to sit with me when the house was quiet and her big brother was upstairs. She smiled, bounced over to me and snuggled in my lap as I stroked her hair. I told her this was the best part of my day and she said nothing in return. I smiled, hoping she was being pensive and considering those angles.

Only time will tell if my hypothesis is supported, but I am willing to bet a lot on this hunch. I will continue my experiment and work to get my children still for short periods of time. I am banking on their gratitude to follow, and ultimately happiness and resilience to be the core of their personalities.

[author image=”” ]Celebrated author Dr. Erica Kosal is the blogger of Traveling Troubled Times, where she writes about her experiences with raising two small children, caring for her chronically ill husband, and juggling a full-time career as a professor; available at Erica and her husband also maintain a website, Bounce to Resilience, which can be found at[/author]

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