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Using the Science of Gratitude to Raise Grateful Children

Three scientific gratitude practices

Social relationships are filled with moments of giving and receiving. Gratitude is an important way that these relationships stay smooth. As parents, we are continually giving to our children. Think about a time when you slaved over the stove for an hour, cooking a delicious healthy meal, only to have your child give you that “ew” face. Now try this same scenario, but in the end your child’s face lights up, with an exclamation: “Mmmm, thank you, this looks yummy!” Reality check: Research finds that children ages 6 and younger only say thank you about 20% of the time when receiving things. So don’t take it too personally. But by the time they hit age 10, this dramatically rises to about 80% of the time, thankfully. What happens? Children start to develop cognitive empathy skills, which helps them to notice when other people are intentionally doing kind things for them. Gratitude is intimately linked with empathy.

If you know several children, you won’t be surprised to learn that research finds that gratitude differes from person to person. Some people are naturally more grateful, while others struggle to notice the good in their lives. But it is possible for people to become more grateful through daily practices or direct teaching about gratitude. In fact, the research shows that these exercises work even better for those who struggle the most to be grateful.

Gratitude-building studies have been done on both children and adults, finding similar results. When people try to be more grateful, not only does it work, but the benefits start to spill over into other areas of their lives. They start to feel happier, more optimistic, less depressed, and for children, more satisfied with school. Children who are more satisfied with school end up doing better academically, so gratitude could potentially boost students’ motivation to study. Adults start to sleep better, exercise more, and feel physically healthier. Not surprisingly, since gratitude is so intimately embedded within social relationships, people start to feel closer and more connected to others, and their relationships begin to improve. These experiments also find that people are even more willing to help strangers after spending time reflecting on the things that they are grateful for.

All of these outcomes can happen in as little as two weeks of practice, and the research finds that they can last up to six months. Who knows how much longer they can last, since there is limited research looking beyond six months. But pulling out gratitude once a year to go with the Thanksgiving turkey is probably not going to cut it.

Here are some research-based practices to help increase gratitude. These work for both children and adults.

1) Counting blessings: Keep a daily gratitude journal for two to three weeks. At the end of each day, write down five things that you are grateful for that day. Pay special attention to the ways that other people gave to you. Yes, there are apps for that, if you would prefer to jot things down on your phone throughout the day.

2) Gratitude letter: Write a letter to someone whom you have never properly thanked. Then read the letter to that person, preferably in person. This could be an excellent Thanksgiving tradition – to pick a name of a family member out a hat and then read these letters around the table. It might seem ridiculous for those of us who struggle to pass the potatoes without conflict, but in those cases, it might be especially worth a try.

3) Gratitude lessons: Research finds that this direct teaching method, which was developed by Jeffrey Froh at Hoffstra University, works well in elementary school children. It involves teaching children that when others are nice to us, they do it on purpose (good intentions), using their time, treasure, or talent (cost to others), and that it helps us (benefit to us). You can find free lesson plans on his website, or check out his book, Making Grateful Kids.

Gratitude is about shifting your perception. No one has a perfect life, even though it might look like that through the distant filtered lenses of social media. But everyone has something to be grateful for. One of the most powerful ways to raise grateful children is likely to be grateful adults. Raising grateful children means raising our own gratitude levels as well.

More from Sara Konrath Ph.D.
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