Teaching Our Kids (and Ourselves) Gratitude

Tips and activities for teaching gratitude to our kids (and ourselves).

By Daria Bobbin, LMFT and Hilary Adams, Ph.D.

‘Tis the season for a focus on gratitude – with school activities, around the dinner table, and within the media. As parents, we want our kids to notice and appreciate what they have. We want them to derive meaning from the holidays as more than a season of pumpkin pie and a break from school. So it’s natural to be disappointed when our elementary schoolers return with their turkey projects endorsing gratitude for “candy” or “my Nintendo Switch,” and our older kids simply can’t be bothered with the gratitude question.

Science shows us that focusing on gratitude can improve our mental health, create stronger social bonds, and can help us build resilience. When we reflect on gratitude regularly, we are focused on positive emotions and tend to have a more optimistic and solution-oriented approach to problem-solving. So how do we encourage our kids (and ourselves) to embrace this practice?

Starting with Ourselves by Modeling Gratitude

“We know that modeling is one of the most effective ways to teach skills. Kids naturally imitate what they see their caregivers doing (for better or worse). ”

Is it realistic to expect our kids to do something that we ourselves are not practicing? Gain some buy-in with showing, not just telling. We know that modeling is one of the most effective ways to teach skills. Kids naturally imitate what they see their caregivers doing (for better or worse). The more you practice and express gratitude, the more likely your child will be to follow suit. An added benefit is that you’ll feel more uplifted and gain the benefits of practicing gratitude yourself – and your child will likely notice this shift in you, too. As you make your own changes, your child will be more likely to do the same, with an added benefit of more pleasant family interactions. How can we model gratitude?

·       Notice (and create) opportunities to say a genuine “Thank you”. When asking for a favor or observing your child doing something kind or helpful, take the time to offer a meaningful “thank you.” Instead of a passing (and often unnoticed) “thanks,” consider a more in-depth and focused demonstration of gratitude. For instance, you might notice that your older child helps their sibling with breakfast while you pack lunches. Get your older child’s attention, point out the behavior, and communicate the impact of their actions. You might say, “I noticed that you were helping your sister pour her cereal while I was packing lunches. Thank you - it helps me so much when I can focus on packing the lunches so that we can get out of the door sooner.” This practice helps our kids understand and feel that their actions are important. Consequently, they take pride in their behavior and may even look for more ways to help. Plus, we model this practice ourselves - that we can offer more than an uttered “thank you” when someone offers us help.

·       Start a “Family Member Appreciation” practice. Getting into the habit of modeling and practicing gratitude can have a positive impact on all of the relationships in a family. To start, create a goal to express genuine appreciation to each member of your household at least once per day. Try to make these appreciations deeper or more meaningful than thanking someone for regular household tasks; rather, comment on your family members’ character traits or actions that go above and beyond day-to-day expectations.  Examples are appreciating the way a family member connects with others, their patience, gentleness, sense of humor, their smile, contributions to the household, etc. When you begin this practice, your family members may seem a bit thrown off; they probably aren’t used to receiving consistent recognition. After a few days, you may notice less tension in family interactions, your partner and kids expressing their own gratitude toward you and each other, and family members going out of their way to help each other.

Family Gratitude Activities

Now that the whole family has gotten into the habit of expressing more gratitude on a micro level, we can encourage further reflection with activities we can do as a family. Next, we can take the time to dig a bit deeper through a fun or creative project.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

·       Gratitude Visual. Make your sources of gratitude come to life and display for all to see! The whole family can add gratitude “leaves” to a posterboard tree, fill a jar with notes of gratitude in words or drawings, or make a collage with magazine pictures and your own illustrations of things you appreciate. A visual like this makes being thankful more present and concrete than a simple discussion.

·       Family Gratitude Journaling. Create a gratitude journal for each family member and set aside time each day to draw or write as a family. Each time, try to add one to three drawings, bullet points, or descriptions of something for which you are thankful.

·       Gratitude Letter or Picture. As a family, choose someone to whom you’d like to express gratitude. Each of your family members can draw or write a contribution and discuss with each other. Share the collaborative effort with the recipient of your gratitude if you would like.

·       Attend a Charitable Event as a Family. Choose a kid-friendly event that benefits others and attend as a family. This is a great way to connect with each other and the community in a new way. Helping others models generosity and empathy and gives you a chance to discuss your gratitude for the ability to share your time and resources with others. Help your older children connect the event with whom the event benefits by explaining a bit about the host charity or organization.

·       Donate With Your Children. Assign your kids the task of choosing a few toys or clothing items to donate to a charity. Children can feel a great sense of pride and joy when giving a cherished item to someone in need. Donating physical objects to the community encourages empathy, teaches generosity, and reinforces the idea that happiness need not stem from tangible belongings. Help your kids visualize others receiving what they donated; guide them to remember their own feelings of excitement about the belonging they are sharing, and how they are passing that on to another child.

·       Read Books About Gratitude Together. Reading with your children is a great way to connect with each other and expose them to new perspectives and ideas. Reading and discussing books about gratitude and being thankful is an excellent way to reinforce these concepts from a point of view different from your own.

“Making the expression of gratitude a daily routine contributes to the needed consistency for establishing new and healthier patterns.”

Teaching our children about gratitude can be a fun, connecting, and rewarding experience for all involved. What’s more, we gain the added benefits of uplifting our own mood by focusing on gratitude ourselves. Even family interactions can become more pleasant and joyful with this shift in focus.

Making the expression of gratitude a daily routine contributes to the needed consistency for establishing new and healthier patterns. While some of these benefits may be noticed relatively quickly, such practices take time to really sink in and become part of a family’s way of being.

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