How to teach your child to be grateful

Written by Pallavi Rana
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
How to teach your child to be grateful

These are dark and hopeless times. Many preschool teachers, baby sitters and nannies like me have been hoping for good news, but we keep hearing news that leaves us with anger, fear and a sense of helplessness. But everyday I also hear about the acts of kindness happening across the world as we fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid so much negativity, reading about people caring for each other really shows what it means to be human. 


I believe developing the socio-emotional skills like gratitude and compassion for others are just as important as any academic skills. In fact, practicing gratitude is beneficial in several ways. Research shows that gratitude is linked to happiness in children by age 5 and instilling gratitude in your kids at a young age could help them grow up to be happier adults[1]. In addition, gratitude improves physical and emotional health[2]. 


So, how do we, as parents or caregivers, teach this abstract skill to our children? Here are a few simple tips to get you started.

Model your own gratitude. 

Gratitude is the readiness to show appreciation and return kindness. Gratitude starts at home. So, in order to instill gratitude in our children, we as caregivers, need to be mindful of our own actions. Children learn by watching how their parents and caregivers talk, eat, react to situations and interact with others. It has been confirmed that children as young as 14 months remember and repeat actions they observe in adults, other children, and on television![3]


It is easy for us to get sad or upset over what is happening right now. However when we are mindful of the overall goodness around us, it creates a sense of safety and well being. Show appreciation for the people in your life. Say thank you to the cashier at the store, to the postman or the delivery person the next time they come by. Talk about being thankful and grateful for things in your life. 



Start a family gratitude practice.

Start a daily practice where you and your children recall good things you enjoy, people you appreciate. This could be as simple as talking about it during dinner time, writing thank you notes, keeping a journal or starting a gratitude tree.

The gratitude tree is a wonderful way to teach young kids to be grateful.
The gratitude tree is a wonderful way to instill thankfulness in little kids


The gratitude tree

The gratitude tree is a wonderful way to teach young kids to be grateful. Below are the steps to start one but you can also do a poster or make one out of paper and stick it on the wall. This tree starts leafless and grows as we gradually add leaves of appreciation or thankfulness over a period of time.

  • Go outdoors with your child and look for a long stick or branch 
Gather a long tree branch and make a tree
Gather a long tree branch and make a tree
  • Cut leaves out of paper 
Gather a stick or a branch and some construction paper to make leaves
Cut some leaves of paper
  • Every day at the beginning or end of the day, sit down with your child and talk about what you are thankful for. 
  • Let your child write, draw or decorate the leaf to reflect about a person or thing that he or she is grateful for.
Let your child write, draw or decorate the leaf to reflect the person, thing that he or she is grateful for.
Let your child write, draw or decorate the leaf to reflect the person, thing that he or she is grateful for.
  • Hang the leaf with a string on the branch and watch your gratitude tree blossom! 


Stop, breath, think, appreciate, and heal.

When we take a second to slow down and become aware of what is going on, we tend to get a better understanding of how it makes us feel.  Understanding our own feelings can help resolve many unwanted behaviors. In practicing both gratitude and compassion this method helps. In any situation, practicing to stop, take a deep breath, think about why the situation is happening, and appreciate what you already have, helps to release a lot of negativity and stress.


Let's take a look at the current situation as an example. Shelter in place -- stop what you’re doing, take a deep breath,  think about why we are in lockdown, appreciate that it is happening to ensure that the Coronavirus doesn't spread and be grateful that you are safe, and release the anger of being stuck at home. 



Practice, practice, practice! 

These simple things do work but it takes time and requires practice. You’ll need to continue modeling and practicing thankfulness in front of your children. Once children begin to understand the basic principles of gratitude, they begin to feel thankful about now and this helps them reflect more on reasons to be grateful as an adult.

Do you have a regular gratitude practice? Did you start a gratitude tree? If so, please log in to comment.

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Pallavi Rana is an early childhood educator based in San Francisco. She has been guiding and assisting children and parents for the past 12 years. You can follow Ms. Rana on instagram.

[1] Nguyen, S.P., Gordon, C.L. The Relationship Between Gratitude and Happiness in Young Children. J Happiness Stud (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-019-00188-6

[2] Emmons, Robert, et al. “Why Gratitude Is Good.” Greater Good. greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good.

[3] Meltzoff, Andrew N et al. “Foundations for a new science of learning.” Science (New York, N.Y.) vol. 325,5938 (2009): 284-8. doi:10.1126/science.1175626

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