In a world measured by material success, gratitude can be hard to come by—and difficult to teach, especially to toddlers and young children, who are egocentric by nature. This inability to perceive the world from another perspective is a normal part of the growing process; children are solely focused on their own needs in order to develop life skills like walking and talking. If you’ve weathered the “terrible twos,” you know what we mean—a disaster play date when your child refused to share, or a Stage 5 “I-WANT-A-Candy-Bar” Temper Tantrum at the grocery store. As this phase comes to pass, children learn what it means to exist in a world that no longer revolves around them, building soft skills like empathy, flexibility and emotional intelligence.
Gratitude is good
Key among these soft skills is gratitude, “a feeling of appreciation or thanks.” Relatively new to the scientific research scene, gratitude has already been credited for workplace satisfaction, improved relationship building, better sleep quality and increased physical and mental health. It reduces aggression, strengthens resilience, deepens friendships…you get the picture—gratitude is good. When it comes to gratitude’s role in education, emerging research suggests that children who make gratitude part of their daily practice are more successful academically, with higher GPAs and greater learning capacity.
Building a foundation
Science suggests that the emotional tools necessary to process gratitude emerge between the ages of seven and ten—but it’s never too early to start laying the foundation for a gratefulness practice. A 2009 study from the Journal of Positive Psychology indicates “…that adult encouragement can likely foster gratitude development in youth. Because gratitude can be taught to adults via exposure to social contexts and activities that are fertile ground for the experience and expression of gratitude, these same tools might help children learn the skills to experience and express gratitude.”
Make gratitude your attitude
Show and tell- Modeling behavior is a cornerstone of teaching and learning. Spend time cultivating your own gratefulness mindset, and your children will follow suit. Thank everyone around you—from your grandmother to the garbage man. Keep a gratefulness diary. Reminding your child to say “please” and “thank you” is important—but remember that actions speak louder than words.
Hands-on learning– Involve your child in “acts of gratefulness”—let them write the thank you letter to your neighbor who dog-sat last week. Bring them along when you volunteer your time to those in need, and remind them how important it is to lend a hand. Let them pick out the thank-you gift for their teacher at the end of the school year.
Gratitude language– Expand your child’s gratefulness vocabulary. When your child comes home from school or your family gathers for mealtimes, don’t just ask them what their favorite or best part of the day was. Ask them what they are grateful for. If your child acknowledges that a classmate did something kind for them, don’t simply say “how nice!”, but use this as an opportunity to discuss how to demonstrate thankfulness.
Replace materialism with gratitude– Research suggests that the negative psychological consequences of materialism can be counteracted by the positive effects of gratitude. Consider swapping out material rewards with fun experiences; spend time, not money. Limit exposure to media and advertisements. Define needs and wants. Make donating unused toys and clothing a monthly activity you do together.
Gratitude toolbox– Children’s books are an incredible resource for teaching complex ideas and emotions. Check out books that promote gratefulness, like The Awesome Book of Thanks by Dallas Clayton, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
What makes you grateful everyday? How does your family approach gratitude development? Let us know in the comments below!