Good manners go a long way and teaching our children common courtesies like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are some of the most important things we can do to instil good behaviour.
But while saying ‘thank you’ is a key tenet of good manners and should become a lifelong habit, there’s a whole lot more to be gained by delving deeper into the concept of being grateful. In fact, gratitude is an extremely powerful tool and has an extensive range of benefits for our children’s (and our own) mental and physical health.
Let’s investigate why teaching children how to experience and express gratitude can be life-changing.
We’ve probably all read a book or seen a movie about how an adult who was bitter, angry or resentful managed to reset their life to a more positive course because they shifted their perspective and changed their attitudes. Those stories were probably fictional, but there’s plenty of science out there that proves there is a definite link between gratitude and happiness.
While most of the studies on gratitude have centred on adults, here are some examples of ‘gratitude’ research that have been done in children.
A 2019 research paper published in the Journal of Happiness Studies established the presence of a relationship between gratitude and happiness in children by the age of five years. Another study on children aged between 11 and 13 which was published in the Journal of School Psychology in 2018, found that grateful children tended to be happier, more optimistic and had (and gave) better social support. Researchers also found that grateful teens (aged 14-19) were more satisfied with their lives and were more engaged in their schoolwork. They had better grades, they used their strengths to improve their communities and were less depressed than their peers who were less grateful.
Other benefits of gratitude for kids is that they’re likely to be less aggressive, have a higher sense of self-worth and better resilience. They may also experience reduced stress and/or have an improved ability to cope with stress and better self-esteem as a result of gratitude.
In today’s rapidly evolving world where children are faced with more challenges and uncertainties than ever before, it’s vital that parents and caregivers empower youngsters with skills and strategies to help them navigate their way more easily and more successfully. Instilling a healthy emotion like gratitude can be an extremely powerful tool for our children and it could change their world - and hopefully the whole world - for the better.
Most parents prompt their children to say ‘thank you’ from a very young age - but the trick is to help them to go deeper into those words. If they’re saying thank you for something they’ve been given, children should be encouraged to consider why they’ve received it and how it made them feel. In cultivating a sense of gratitude, children need to be helped to notice things, people or opportunities they are grateful for and helped to find ways that they can express their appreciation.
There are plenty of things that parents can say and do to foster a deeper sense of gratitude, but perhaps the most important of all is to try and make gratitude a central family value.
Communication is key and there will be plenty of teachable moments (planned and unplanned) which adults can use as learning opportunities for gratitude as well as for conversation starters. Of course, very young children won’t immediately and completely grasp the concept as it is a tricky one for little minds to understand, but as their empathy skills improve with age, so too will their ability to practice and appreciate gratitude.
How to cultivate an ‘attitude of gratitude’.
Be a role model. Whether you’re saying ‘thank you’ to the driver who lets you into their lane, to the cashier at the supermarket or to your own child for putting away their shoes, make sure you thank people often - and sincerely - so that your child learns from your example.
Demonstrate gratitude. Show your child a text you sent a friend to thank them for something they’ve done for you or read them a thank you letter you’ve written. You may be dropping off a token of appreciation to someone’s home - in which case, tell your child the story behind your actions. You may even do random acts of kindness (cookies to a neighbour, helping an elderly shopper with their parcels) which you can discuss with your children. If they see you being kind, considerate and appreciative of others, that will become their learnt behaviour too.
Use gratitude to turn negatives into positives. Instead of complaining about something, flip the perspective and look for an angle to be grateful for. For example, if you’re stuck in traffic on a school run, rather than being grumpy about being late, why not express your appreciation that the extra time means special bonding time with your child? If it’s raining, don’t grumble, rather talk about life-giving water for the land, animals and crops. If your child is in tears because a playdate has come to an end, gently reassure them how grateful you are that he or she was able to share special time and how lucky they are to have a special friend. This will help children learn that there is always something good in each day or in each situation, however tough it may seem at first.
Have a daily gratitude reflection/conversation/activity with your family. For example, an evening ritual could be for every member of the family to share one thing they’re grateful for while they’re sitting at the dining table.
Acknowledge when your child does good things. Notice when they make a difference in someone’s life (for example, they shared a toy with a sibling or comforted another child at school) and let them know how and why their actions were appreciated. Remember to thank them for things they do at home, whether it’s for a cuddle, for picking up a toy, for being kind to a sibling....and don’t worry if you think it sounds repetitive and rehearsed rather than spontaneous, it will be habit-forming!
Change perspective. When we change the language we use in certain situations, we can change attitudes too. For example, if someone said to you ‘thank you so much for being patient and waiting for me’ instead of ‘sorry I am late’ - don’t you think you’d feel differently about the situation? You’d probably feel more valued and appreciated.
Gratitude is an extremely healthy emotion with benefits that go far beyond fleeting appreciation for something. Yes, it’s an abstract skill and can be a tricky concept for little ones to grasp, but putting in the effort from an early age to inculcate a mindset of gratitude will help set children up for greater success in life.
It’s a central theme at Treasured Tots, where children are encouraged to explore, discover, grow and develop into independent, confident learners who are well-prepared for formal schooling. Gratitude is practised in many different ways during daily life at their three child care centres in Fremantle, Bibra Lake and Mandurah.
‘It’s a funny thing about life, once you begin to take note of the things you are grateful for, you being to lose sight of the things you lack.’