There are few things more gratifying as a parent, as when your youngster receives a present and immediately says thank you for it. It’s just one of those little things that makes parents feel that they are doing something right. Saying thank you is generally one of the first social rules many parents teach their children, so when they forget—even though you’ve reminded them to express their gratitude since they could talk—it’s incredibly frustrating.
Most parents want their kids to be appreciative of kind acts and generosity, and not take things for granted just to be good members of society. Learning to be grateful can improve kids’ relationships, help them develop empathy, and generally be happier in life. Plus, there are many health benefits to gratitude that most parents would like to pass along to their children, including lower risk of depression and better sleep.
If you are looking for ways to teach children—or remind yourself—about the importance of gratitude, here are some tips all backed by science:
Start ‘em young
In a 2013 study, researchers (bravely) invited 263 3-year-olds to their laboratory to assess their emotional awareness, and then followed their emotional development over the course of three years. They found that the kids who understood emotions and other people’s perspectives at 3-years old were more likely to understand gratitude at 5 years old and beyond. In short, it’s never too early to start talking about feelings with kids.
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Have family appreciation day
Thomas Lickona, author “How to Raise Kind Kids,” says that hosting family appreciation days can help teach kids gratitude. “Start dinner or a family meeting with a round of ‘appreciations,’” writes Lickona, suggesting that each member of the family take a moment to express appreciation for whatever other family members had done for them during the week.
Teach kids to look at the gift giver’s intention
In one 2014 study, researchers asked children to assess a desirable gift (a birthday cupcake) and an undesirable gift (a melted ice cream cone). They found that it was easy for kids of all ages to feel grateful for desirable gifts, but when it came to those undesirable ones, it was easier for older kids (here, fourth and fifth graders) to feel gratitude even if they didn’t want the gift. Kids of all ages, though, felt grateful when they took into consideration how hard the gift giver tried to give them a nice gift.
Lead by example
According to science, grateful parents make for grateful kids.
If your toddler (or teenager) seems like an entitled ingrate, never fear—gratitude can be taught. According to a 2015, study, the best way to teach gratitude is through discipline, leading by example, and, a word you don’t see too often in scientific papers, love. In short, if you are grateful and your kids see that gratitude in action, they will mostly likely follow your example, especially if you reinforce it with loving discipline.
Talk about gratitude
When children express gratitude of their own volition (it does happen!) parents should seize the opportunity to express their approval. Research also shows that when parents reminisce with their children about positive, happy events, it can make a lasting impression in children’s memories.
Talk about ungrateful moments, too
When your child acts spoiled or entitled, or forgets to say thank you or act grateful, parents should take it as learning opportunity. Engage your kid in a thoughtful conversation about why they didn’t think they needed to say thank you or be grateful. According to UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Project, parents should try to understand how the child viewed the moment to figure out why they didn’t feel the need to act grateful. “Parents may gain new insights into how to get these moments back on track,” they write, adding that the conversation may “help children to catch opportunities for gratitude when they come along.”
Prepare to be thankful
Another study found that in some ways gratitude was a self-fulfilling prophecy—when parents felt that their actions were appreciated, they tended to choose activities that they knew their kids would appreciate and express gratitude for. They found that the more parents had their kids participate in these activities, the more gratitude kids expressed, creating a sort of wheel of gratitude and appreciation. The researchers said this suggested that parents’ intentions and actions are important for how gratitude develops in their children. If you want to try this at home, but think your kids may not be up to the challenge, try to be proactive about gratitude, by flat-out telling your kids, “When we get home today, I’m going to ask you what you’re thankful for and why?”
Make gratitude a daily activity
A study by the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center looked at 101 sets of parents and children and found that the parents who regularly engaged their kids in gratitude activities, like encouraging them to say thank you and writing thank you notes, saw “more frequent gratitude displays by their children.”
Incorporate gratitude into bedtime routine
Research in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research notes that people who count their blessings before bed sleep better and longer.
Gratitude takes practice
Like with most things in this world, practice makes perfect. Remember, gratitude develops in children over time, an idea that science supports, so give your kids a break—and yourself, too.