Gratitude, thankfulness, and appreciation, as with other social skills like sharing, telling the truth, not hitting others, and taking turns, have to be taught to kids. An attitude of gratitude is not instinctual in children. They are not born with it.
Gratitude is not just a nice character trait that is optional. It’s a critically important life skill that must to be taught, and to some extent, caught: especially in a prosperous society like ours where it can be so easy to take things for granted.
My wife and I raised four children. Three are married now and the youngest is a junior in college. They all came home recently for Thanksgiving and brought their spouses. This was a great blessing for us, in which we ourselves are truly grateful.
As we gathered in our nice, warm house, far from any war zone, we sat around the Dining Room table, filled with more food than the nine of us could eat, we did something we have done ever since they were very small. As is our tradition, we each took a turn and shared what we were thankful for.
It had always be our desire as parents to raise grateful and appreciative children. Dinner was always a good time and place to teach that lesson, especially at Thanksgiving. So our four adult children knew what to expect this holiday and they already had some answers ready to go.
As each of them shared, I listened intently for signs of true gratitude and not just a series of words to once again please their meddling and demanding parents. I heard many positive things that made me think they were indeed thankful. But as the evening went on, I heard other things, things embedded in other conversations, that made me wonder if they truly learned the lesson of gratitude, if they were really appreciative. Of course, I can’t read their minds or know their hearts. God does. I can only judge by their words and actions if they have genuine spirits of gratitude and thankfulness.
For the first time in my life, I decided to do a little research on the subject of gratitude and especially how to teach it to children. My work with the boys and girls of Patrick Henry Family Services gives me additional motivation for understanding this unique character trait. I strongly believe that all children, no matter their circumstance, and despite their challenges, should learn to be grateful, thankful, and appreciative. Not only is this a Christian virtue worthy of emulating, I am firmly convinced it is a necessary tool for a happy and successful life.
Jeffrey Froh, who is an associate professor at Hofstra University, and who is considered a leading gratitude researcher, agrees. He co-authored the book, Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character. What I like about Dr. Froh is that he is also a father of a five and nine year old. His research isn’t just academic, it’s also very practical and personal.
Dr. Froh says there are three elements that must be in place in order for a child, or anyone for that matter, to learn appreciation. Without these three fundamental abilities, gratitude will always be just beyond the grasp of the individual child. Here they are.
Children must understand:
1) The intent: they should realize that somebody, with their thoughts or actions, put them first.
It is very important for children to understand intent. There is a difference, for example, between someone trying to be helpful and really being helpful. Children must be able to associate their gratitude with the intent of a person’s action, as opposed with the outcome of the action itself. They don’t have to be grateful for a Christmas present they don’t like, but they do have to be grateful for the intent of the gift and the desired intent of the gift giver.
2) The cost: children need to understand what someone gave up for them (such as their time or their money).
Again, allow me t Young children will have a difficult time grasping the cost of something. They don’t have the experience or mental capacity to measure such things. It is a skill, however, they have to learn for many reasons, not the least of which is gratitude.
3) The benefit: they must see clearly what they got out of it.
Sometimes children may not see the benefit in a gift or action of an adult, but it is nevertheless, something that they can understand if taught to them.
The intent. The cost. The benefit. This makes perfect sense doesn’t it? I wish I had known this when I was parenting my small children. My wife and I probably hit on these three things occasionally, and accidentally, but it would have been so much easy to build systematic lessons based on these three demonstrable thing.
Here’s some other things I found, along with some things I’ve tried myself.
1. Connect manners with gratitude. Teaching children to say please and thank you isn’t just teaching them to be polite, it is teaching them gratitude. At first they may say it because they have to, but rote practice of anything eventually becomes a part of who we are. Teaching manners, enforcing them in public and private, is a great place to begin. They may not always mean it when they say thank you, but they don’t have to in order for it to be a lesson.
2. Don’t give them everything they want. In other words, let them struggle a bit. Anything that is worked for, and everything that is earned, is appreciated. The harder the work, the greater the gratitude.
Here is a life lesson that should be taught at an early age and recited the rest of our lives. Not every problem is bad and not every opportunity is good.
We do our children a great disservice when we shield them from every problem. It is in struggling, in doing the hard things that we all grow. Providing our children an easy path is not the best way to help them. Letting them work through difficulties prepares them for the real life challenges they will face as adults.
Our children must also learn that not every opportunity is good. They must learn to make choices, to see that they can’t have it all and they can’t do it all. They must learn to say no to some opportunities. Discerning which opportunities to take and which to pass is one of the best skills our children can learn from us.
3. Don’t fix every problem they have. Parents, I’m going to ask you to do something that might be hard for you to do. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think it important.
I want you to let your children fail. Not with everything and not all the time. And I certainly don’t want you to let them fail if that failure would result in physical or psychological harm. But I do think it’s essential to allow children to sometimes fail. Not everyone agrees with me. There are plenty of “helicopter” parents who are driven by an ideology, or a need, for their children to succeed at everything.
We are too quick to come to the rescue of our children. If our children fail a test we blame the school. They get pulled from a game, we attack the coach. We even get in the middle of their fights. But are we really helping? Life’s a tough but good teacher. We must let it teach our children some lessons. One day we won’t be there to.
4. Less is better than more. When it comes to teaching kids to be thankful for what they have, less is more. We are suffering in this society from a plague of unruly children. This is happening in large part because we have given a generation everything they need and want. A spoiled child is a ruined child.
Materialism has been a mounting problem since the 1950’s but because of technology it has reached new heights of concern. Today’s children have more things than any previous generation but it hasn’t made them any healthier, smarter, moral, or kind. Nor has it made them more grateful. In fact they’ve lost ground in those areas.
It’s not just the abundance of things that concerns me. It’s their ungrateful attitude about their possessions. Additionally, they are eating too much junk food and they have far too much leisure time. The epidemic of obesity is just one symptom of an inner illness that pervades our young. Their time spent on electronics resembles that of an addict. Their obsessive and self-centered use of social media seems narcissistic. In short, I‘m worried because this generation wants more and more, faster and faster. Where does it go from here?
Children should have everything they need and some of the things they want but we must put limits on it because moderation and appreciation is tremendously important for children to learn.
5. Being a good role model is a must. Don’t expect a thankful child raised by parents who don’t give thanks themselves. It starts when your toddler picks up something from the floor and hands it to you. You give a big grin and say, “thank you. You’re being such a big helper.” It continues on when your teenager does the laundry by putting bleach in the color wash. You smile big and say, “Thanks for your thoughtfulness. I appreciate the help. Now let me show you something about bleach and dark clothes.”
Gratitude must be apart of the family culture. If it flows naturally at home, they will be comfortable expressing it outside the home.
6. Make it a practice to say it or write it down on a regular basis. Just like we did at the dinner table, make time to express appreciation. It not only models for them but also gives them a chance to practice. Just like anything else, your children's attempt at gratitude may be simple and basic, but it will grow with time and practice.
7. Serve others. Kids learn gratefulness when they see the needs of others and lend a hand to help. It is a powerful lesson that doesn’t require words. We make a point of this at Patrick Henry Boys and Girls Homes. We believe their is great value in children serving others. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a whiny teenager is put them in the middle of a service project where they can better appreciate what they have.
Think for a moment about the transformational power of gratitude. A thankful spirit can unlock the fullness of life. It turns what little we might have into enough - even more than enough. Gratefulness turns denial into acceptance, and can turn a simple meal into a feast. Gratitude can make a stranger into a friend and a house into a home. The ability to appreciate is the ability to be happy in the moment, secure in the future, and at peace with the past.
Learning to be thankful is the secret to knowing joy. Cicero said, “gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues, but is the parent of all others.”
Perhaps that is why I Thessalonians admonishes us, “in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” Notice, It doesn’t say that we must be thankful for everything but only to be thankful in everything. Gratitude is giving thanks in every situation or circumstance. That is power.
We must show and teach this wonderful power to our children.