Gratitude for kids: Why it’s important and how to encourage it
We all know gratitude for kids is important, right? We encourage them to say thank you to others frequently, and subtly (or maybe not so subtly) elbow them in the ribs when they forget! No?! Just me? Well, we all know that good manners are important, anyway, and showing others that we appreciate them makes them feel happy and loved. But did you know expressing gratitude also has benefits for the person expressing it, and not just for the receiver?
That’s right! There have been numerous studies into the practice of gratitude over the years. Most of these studies have focused on adults, but in recent years, more and more studies have looked at the effects of gratitude on kids. And surprise, surprise, the benefits are pretty similar! So, what are they and how do you teach your children to be more grateful?
Benefits of gratitude for kids
Studies show that gratitude for kids can be a very powerful tool, with lots of benefits to mental and physical health. They include things like:
- Higher levels of happiness and optimism
- Improved sleep
- Less stress and an improved ability to cope with stress
- Fewer physical problems
- Reduced depression
- Less aggression
- Increased self esteem
- Improved resilience
How to teach gratitude to children
That’s a lot of benefits right? So how can you teach your children to be more grateful? Well, first of all, let’s be realistic. Gratitude can be a tricky concept for young children to grasp. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but make sure your expectations are not set too high. Research tells us that when children under the age of six receive things, they only express gratitude about 20% of the time. They do get better though, so don’t despair! By the time children are around 10 years old, this number rises to about 80% of the time.
Why does this number start to rise after age six? Because children start to develop and refine their empathy skills. Empathy is very closely linked to gratitude. And that’s because we need to be able to understand another person’s experience in order to appreciate their actions and recognise that they are doing something kind or generous for us.
Activities to try with your kids
The more children practice gratitude, the better they get at it and the greater the benefits. In fact, studies show that the benefits can be seen after just 2 weeks of gratitude practice, and they can last up to 6 months! So it’s definitely worth introducing the kids to some simple gratitude exercises.
Here are some easy ways to practice gratitude with your children today:
1. Daily gratitude reflection
There are many ways to incorporate gratitude into your daily life. One of my favourites is for everyone to share one thing they are grateful for at the dinner table each night. Everyone gets a chance to reflect upon their day, and find just one thing to be grateful for. This helps children gain a little bit of perspective, and appreciate that while every day may not be good, there is always something good in every day.
2. Help others
Encourage your kids to help others in age appropriate ways. Help them to find causes they feel passionate about and are interested in, and allow them to contribute in their own unique way, using their special skills and talents. It could be donating belongings or food to the homeless, volunteering their time at a nursing home, donating their pocket money to a good cause, participating in a fun run to raise money for a particular charity. Whatever it is, giving to others in need will help your child appreciate their own life and how fortunate they are.
3. Say thank you
Using manners certainly helps us to express gratitude for others, but I’m not just talking about saying thank you to your brother for passing the milk at breakfast this morning. I’m talking about thanking people for the small things they do for us that make our days brighter. Express appreciation to your neighbour for always bringing your bin in from the curb for you. Let your friend know how much you appreciate her always being there to listen when you need to talk. Thank your mum for the way she always brings you a special home made treat when she comes to visit. Thank your child’s teacher for always showing up to class with a smile, even when she’s been up late marking homework.
4. Family gratitude jar
Whenever someone in your family feels grateful for something or someone in their life, have them write it down and pop it into the jar. You can make it a weekly ritual to sit down together and read about all the things in your life you have to be grateful for. It’s a great way to foster a culture of gratitude in your family, as well as an opportunity to connect and express your appreciation for each other.
You’ll find a fantastic printable to help you with this exercise (and more super fun gratitude exercises for kids) inside of My Gratitude Workbook.
5. Random acts of kindness
Notice the times when your children are kind to others. Let them know that you noticed the way they shared their toy with their sibling, or comforted their sad friend, or invited someone to play because they were on their own. Celebrate kindness. Look for ways you can be kind together. Not for any particular reason, just because. Drop some cookies over to your neighbour, deliver some flowers to a friend, make a card for grandma just because. These acts of kindness lead to more positive feelings and greater connection with others, which helps us feel more grateful.
Grab a free Random Acts of Kindness printable for kids here.
6. Use a gratitude journal
For older children who are able to write, a gratitude journal is a fantastic way to create a gratitude habit. Even younger children may like to use a gratitude journal and draw or create art that reflects what they are feeling grateful for. Recording the things we are grateful for is a great reminder when we are having a difficult day, and helps us reflect on our journey down the track, so we can see just how far we’ve come and how much we have to appreciate in our lives.
7. Gratitude walk
Get out into nature as a family and go for a mindful walk together. While you walk, pay attention to the things you can see, feel, hear, and smell. Notice the small details and express your gratitude for them. Things like the sound of birds singing, the warm sun on your face, the smell of the beautiful flowers as you walk past. Use this time to ask your children what they are grateful for also. By the time you return home, you will be absolutely full to the brim with appreciation for the world around you!
8. Turn ‘sorry’ into ‘thank you’
Be mindful of your language and try this little experiment. Instead of saying, “Sorry I’m late”, try, “Thanks for waiting for me.” Instead of “I’m sorry I can’t make it to your party,” try, “Thank you for inviting me, I really appreciate it.” This helps you turn the focus away from the negative and towards the positive. Making small changes to the way we say things, helps us to change the way we think about things, too. Rather than feeling annoyed that you were stuck in traffic, you can feel grateful that you have people willing to wait for you and who appreciate the effort you made to get there. Changing our language in this way can help us feel so much more appreciative of the opportunities and people in our lives.
9. Give them chores
Give your children age appropriate chores, and resist the urge to jump in because it’s taking them too long, or they’re not “doing it right”. This helps them to appreciate that the work done around the home, (keeping them safe, happy, clean and fed) takes time and effort. It helps them to understand the importance of family members pitching in to help each other and cultivates a culture of connecting over shared work. It also teaches them to be appreciative of the things that others do for them.
10. Model gratitude
You didn’t think you were going to get out if this, did you?! The absolute best way to teach kids to be grateful, is to BE GRATEFUL. They will take their cues from you. So thank them often. Thank them for cleaning their rooms, thank them for giving you a beautiful hug, thank them for helping their baby sister. Let them see how much you appreciate them, and others. Let them see you being kind, giving of your time, helping others, and showing appreciation for your loved ones. They will imitate you, whether you like it or not. So give them something great to imitate!
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.