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Giacomo Bono Ph.D.

Unexpected Lessons in Gratitude and Character for Teens

Learning personal responsibility in an age of sensational "selfies"

With Thanksgiving approaching, it’s worth considering some unexpected ways you could start upping the level gratitude in your home. But first, let’s consider an incident that occurred last Labor Day and the aftermath that ensued to assess the challenges we’re up against as a society. On August 31, around 300 teenagers broke into ex-NFLer Brian Holloway’s vacation home in upstate New York and had a rambunctious, drug and alcohol ridden party, complete with vandalism and stealing. Their intention was to sojourn there all weekend, but those plans were thwarted by the stream of posts and pics on Twitter which broadcast the teens’ accomplishment and good time. In all, about $20,000 of damage was caused. You could read about all the gory details elsewhere, but for our purposes, the way Holloway and the parents of the teens responded is what matters.

Rather than pressing charges right away, Holloway compiled the social media evidence and published them on a website to identify the uninvited guests and urge them to come clean up the mess one weekend and learn a life lesson. Seems like an offer worth taking, right? Well, only 1 parent-teen party showed up, and in fact, many parents threatened Holloway with lawsuits, saying that he was ruining their children’s reputation and chances for college. As a result, what could have been handled informally in a manner that allowed the teens to make up for their behavior and learn from the consequences of their actions was instead handled legally, and Holloway proceeded to press charges against the identified teens.

Now for the moral of the story…

One factor for developing gratitude that has not been sufficiently considered by research is personal responsibility. Most of the research on gratitude has focused on external attributions—recognizing other people who are the sources of gifts and goodness in our lives. But think about it, how much would you appreciate it if a friend gave you a nice tennis club if you weren’t into tennis? While you’d be able to recognize the kind act, you would not feel gratitude as much as you would if the friend gave you a nice mitt to enjoy your favorite sport, baseball.

The personal value of and the meaning behind gifts are so much stronger when gifts enrich an important part of your life. Well, when it comes to kids, the important things in life are still being explored and developed. But as Carol Dweck’s work shows, the process of learning to grow from one’s choices—whether they bring success or failure—is an important part of motivation and productivity in many spheres of life. One reason why is because this is how individuals learn to appreciate things in life. Quite simply, the harder you work for something the more you appreciate its value and the more you learn to appreciate the people who recognize and support you in these areas of your life.

Understandably, we live in competitive times and parents were looking out for their own kids. But there were other factors besides failing to learn personal responsibility that may be putting their kids’ futures at risk. A sense of entitlement and indulgent self-absorption are other factors that can obstruct the development of self-control and good character. They also are major obstacles to gratitude, which we are finding, is congruous with the development of self-control and character.

Disregarding rules that others live by as if they don’t apply to you, willingness to take from others or inconvenience others for your own enjoyment and without compunction, and believing that others are so interested in you and your agenda that you freely post such sensational (and illegal) activity online are all acts of entitlement and self-gratification that unfortunately get glorified in today’s connected youth culture. But that doesn’t make such behavior acceptable or good for you. Indeed, in today’s competitive times such behaviors should be seriously confronted—not skirted—as they only discourage youth from developing good personal and social habits for lifelong success.

So this Thanksgiving season, as you get some time to spend with family, see if these are issues to work on with the young people in your life. The point is, the better you connect with them now, the better they’ll learn to connect with others in ways that will help them discover that true gratification in life comes not from stealing pleasure when opportunity arises but from making and taking opportunities to lift each other up.

Copyright Giacomo Bono, Ph.D. 2013


Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

About the Author

Giacomo Bono is an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills.