It starts the moment a toddler babbles their first word. As parents, we remind them: “Say please,” when they ask for something and “Say thank you” once they receive it.
Saying “thank you” is expressing gratitude in its simplest form. But as the holidays approach, we think of those gone by and wonder: Do our kids actually understand the meaning behind those words? Do they truly realize and appreciate the sources of the good things in their lives?
Living with gratitude is more than saying “thank you.” For some, it’s as simple as making a deliberate choice, “an affirmation of goodness” in the world, according to Robert Emmons, a University of California, Davis, psychology professor known as the “father of gratitude.”
Experts say that practicing gratitude isn’t pretending bad things didn’t happen, but rather savoring the goodness in our lives and understanding that being grateful begets more goodness.
Patch explores the intentionality of gratitude in “30 Days Of Gratitude.” Come back to Across America Patch every day through November and read more about gratitude.
But gratitude is not inherent. It must be taught. It goes beyond words and good manners — gratitude is an action, and it’s one that inarguably starts with parents.
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“If we simply tell our kids they need to be grateful, that’s not helpful. They don’t know how to do that if they don’t see it,” Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at the Duke University School of Medicine, told Patch. “If we want to raise grateful children, we need to show gratitude as well.”
How Gratitude Benefits Kids
Among adults, living with gratitude — taking note of and being thankful for the meaningful and valuable things in your life — is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.
It’s not much different with kids.
Emmons, who has also studied gratitude extensively with the University of California, Berkeley, found that when adults and children alike practice gratitude, they experience measurable psychological, physical and interpersonal benefits.
Other studies draw the same conclusions:
Adults and kids who live with gratitude are kinder and more generous. They’re generally optimistic, enthusiastic and happy. As their aggression goes down, their ability to cope with stress goes up. Teens report higher self-esteem and lower levels of anxiety and depression. Kids even sleep better.
Gratitude can foster resilience, which helps children and families get through tough times, according to Maryam Abdullah, parenting program director at the Greater Good Science Center.
“We want our kids to feel like there is a promise of good things in the world and that they can be the recipients of these good things,” Abdullah told Patch. “The world can be hard sometimes, and gratitude is one of those strengths that can help them.”
Related: Opera Singer ‘Died’ But Lives As Pianist: 30 Days Of Gratitude
Kids aren’t born knowing how to define or show gratitude. So how does it develop?
A 2013 study on gratitude among preschoolers measured the emotional knowledge of 3- and 4-year-olds. Once the children turned 5 years old, researchers then tested how much they understood the positive feelings associated with gratitude and what it may compel them to do in return.
In the end, researchers found the 5-year-old children who better understood gratitude were also the ones who better understood others’ emotions and perspectives at 3 years old.
Researchers with the Raising Grateful Children project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill followed children from kindergarten until they were young teens.