Raising Grateful Children

‘Thank you’ is considered a hallmark of grateful children.  Many parents consistently prompt their children to use this phrase upon receiving a gift, a compliment, or favor. While saying ‘thank you’ is an important aspect of gratitude, gratitude is a complex experience that extends beyond using simple phrases. We also know that gratitude is associated with optimal outcomes such as higher reported levels of life satisfaction, fewer physical illnesses, less anxiety and depression, increased sense of optimism, and improved social interactions. Given the advantages related to gratefulness, it is not surprising that many parents strive to raise grateful children.

What is Gratitude?
  • Gratitude is a multi-faceted experience that includes three components:
    • Behaviors (e.g., saying ‘thank you,’ writing a thank you note)
    • Emotions (e.g., feeling appreciative, thankful, or happy)
    • Cognition (e.g., awareness of another person’s intention and the fact that the gift or favor was not owed to the recipient and was freely given)
  • Gratitude is a developmental process that unfolds over a long period of time.
    • While it may be relatively easy to shape the behaviors that reflect gratitude through consistent reminders to say ‘thank you,’ we can’t simply force children to genuinely feel appreciative.
    • A true feeling of appreciation likely requires the cognitive sophistication to engage in perspective taking and be aware of others’ intentions. In other words, until a child realizes that a gift or favor was given freely and was not owed, he or she may not be able to genuinely feel appreciative or thankful.
    • Given the multiple processes (i.e., behavior, emotion, cognition) involved in experiencing gratitude, genuine and deep gratitude may not emerge until children are between 7 and 10 years old.
  • Gratitude is a product of parent socialization. Parents who are grateful and who model gratitude have children who display more gratefulness. Further, parents who select activities and contexts in which gratitude is valued and encouraged (e.g., social service activities, schools/curriculum that teach about gratitude) have children who display more gratefulness. Finally, parents who explicitly teach gratitude have children who display more gratefulness. That is, parents who purposefully ask their children to think about the benefits they gain when receiving gifts or favors while at the same time asking their children to consider the intention of person who gave the gift or favor tend to have children who experience more gratefulness.
What are the Recommendations for Cultivating Gratitude in Children?
  1. Practice what you preach. If you want your children to become more grateful, model gratitude yourself. Say thank you to others. Say thank you to your children. Write thank you notes (or thank you emails/texts). Talk to your children about how happy you feel when receiving a gift or a favor.  Remind children that the gift or favor was not owed to you and was freely given.
  2. Consistently remind children to say thank you and start when they are young. Children’s initial ‘thank you’ responses are initially driven by external prompts (e.g., parent reminders).  Through continued practice, children’s ‘thank you’ responses become more internalized, heartfelt, and meaningful.
  3. Choose contexts and activities in which gratefulness is valued. Consider service activities such as volunteering at food pantries or donating to programs such as Toys for Tots. Intentionally seek out books/films that highlight gratitude and make sure your children are being exposed to various expressions of gratitude.
  4. Explicitly teach gratitude through practices such as talking about the meaning of appreciation and thankfulness. Ask your children how they feel when you say ‘thank you’ to them.  Then have them think about how it must make others feel if we say thank you. Explicitly point out expressions of gratitude when you see them.
  5. Be patient. Realize that gratitude emerges over time and requires cognitive and emotional development.

Practicing gratitude is beneficial for children and is something that can be easily practiced in multiple settings. Not only does practicing gratitude benefit a child, but it also benefits the people children interact with because it helps others feel appreciated and valued.  Raising grateful children is the perfect chance to practice what we preach.

Recommended Resource: Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character

Picture of Dr. Mary Beth Leibham

Dr. Mary Beth Leibham

Mary Beth Leibham, a professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Loras College (Iowa), a master's degree in developmental psychology from Miami University (Ohio) and a Ph.D. in educational psychology from Indiana University. Her early research interests focused on children's cognitive development, particularly the family and home factors related to young girls’ emerging science interests and science academic motivation. More recently, her research has focused on academic motivation, perfectionism, self-compassion, growth vs. fixed mindsets, and overparenting. Mary Beth teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent development, educational psychology, and exceptional children. Despite her extensive formal training in child development, Mary Beth’s most significant, impactful, and humbling learning experiences have come from her own four children and husband.