Raising a Grateful Child in the Pandemic

Why it’s hard in gifting seasons.

Posted Nov 24, 2020

When I turned 5, my grandmother sent a card with a crisp new $5 bill and a note that read, “I’ll send you another next year if you send me a thank-you note.” Fair enough. I sent the note, and on my 7th birthday, another $5 bill arrived. It went like that until my 15th birthday. Nothing. The lesson hit home; when gratitude stops, so does the giving. I had forgotten to write after I turned 14, and it cost me. That’s the way gratitude works: when appreciation stops, generosity drifts away.

Being grateful is surprisingly good for both children and grown-ups. Gratitude eclipses negative emotions (such as discouragement or pessimism), eases jealousy and sadness, and is tied to happiness in many scientific studies. It is one of the most reliable predictors of meaningful relationships and emotional well-being, but it doesn’t come easily to most of us, especially during the pandemic, when so many of us are down to our last nerve. Nevertheless, it is one of the values that loved children share, though they are not born with it. It can be taught to them by the ones they watch like hawks every day of their childhood: us. Even the easy part—the good manners of saying ‘thank you’ when we receive a gift or help—will only stick if they live with it being said frequently around them. If you’re worried about being a good role model, this quiz can show you how much catching up you need or whether you are on track to model daily gratitude these days. You may find it sobering.

Being truly grateful and kind requires more than saying timely ‘thank-yous.’ You can help young children to consider another’s perspective and emotional state. At 3 years old, children are just beginning to develop such skills and, with parental help, they grow steadily. However, research at the Raising Grateful Children Project at UNC-Chapel Hill has highlighted how many parents are unaware of the importance of going beyond manners to promote authentic gratitude.

Gratitude is a four-part experience: what we notice in our lives for which we can be grateful, how we think about why we have been given those things, how we feel about the things we have been given, and what we do to express appreciation in turn. Older children may get this, but younger ones need to talk it out, repeatedly, with their parents. The Project suggests these prompts that correspond with the four parts above: What—and whom—do you have in your life now that you are thankful to have? Why do you think you got that gift (or relationship)? Did they have to give it to you? Does it make you happy to have it (them) in your life? Do you feel that inside? Does that feeling make you want to share it by giving something to someone else?

These give-and-take conversations will get and keep the gratitude ball rolling.

Finally, some advice for this particular gifting season:

  • Make gratitude a daily topic.
  • Encourage generosity.
  • Insist on thank-you notes.
  • Avoid the temptation to give more presents to compensate for the deprivations of the pandemic. If ever there were a year when less was more, this is it. Emphasize the giving over the gift.
  • If complaints surface, explain that the givers didn’t have to give you anything, but they did, and it took time and money for them to think about you. Complaining is ungrateful.
  • Be patient.