Gratitude is a concept, but it’s also a practice – “count your blessings” is a practical instruction, not a Zen koan. But parents don’t have to wait until their kid cultivates a sophisticated and nuanced view of gratitude to teach them the good habits of thankfulness.
“Gratitude doesn’t suddenly start when kids cognitively understand the concept, at nine or ten,” says Dr. Sonya Dinizulu, a clinical psychologist and an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago Medicine. “It can start at one or two.”
A two-year old’s understanding of gratitude is egocentric: certain material things, and people who do things for them, make them happy. That isn’t a moral failing; everything in a two-year old’s life is egocentric. But it is also when they start to develop empathy and recognize that people live separate existences. This is the emotional intelligence necessary for a greater understanding of gratitude. Demonstrating gratitude consistently in the home, even saying “thank you” when a child follows directions or offers assistance, shows children just how important gratitude is.
“One of the best models to show gratitude to kids of all ages, even preschoolers and toddlers, is for parents to do acts of gratitude,” explains Dinizulu.
Another technique is to not give material items too freely, at least not without requiring kids to work for them. Items earned are items generally held more dearly, whereas a surplus of toys leaves many unappreciated, not played with, and not really missed when misused or broken.
As children grow older, they form friendships and relationships, based often on more abstract things that can make them feel happy — a kind smile, a funny joke, a gentle hug, or positive attention in general. “School-age kids have an understanding of who contributes to positive aspects of their lives, and can acknowledge who makes their lives better,” says Dinizulu.
Family rituals are a long-established way to instill habits of thankfulness in children. They can be weighty and solemn as prayer. They can be social, like a Thanksgiving holiday, the shared meals of Ramadan, or the gift giving of Chanukah and Christmas. They can be as personal as literally counting blessings, or naming the things that children are glad to have in their lives.
Acts of community service can be particularly important to a child’s sense of gratitude. The community can be the household, the block, the school, the town, the state or the nation. A two- or three-year old taking their dishes to the sink is exercising community service in a way. So is the teenager helping those in marginalized communities. When children contribute to their society in an age-appropriate way, it’s like earning the toy: it becomes more appreciated, more deeply valued. It also creates situations where kids can compare their lives to others, where the contrasts can be stark.
Community service helps older kids like tweens or teens understand some of the nuances of gratitude. It isn’t simply a matter of haves or have-nots, but having differently. A person with a great deal of material wealth but very poor relationships doesn’t have the same things to be grateful for as a person with deep, rewarding relationships with family and friends but not much income.
Generally, as kids develop a more informed and more sophisticated understanding of the world, their sense of gratitude expands accordingly – assuming the habits of gratitude were established early.
“It’s important to teach your child gratitude, but a lot of modeling starts early on with the parents,” says Dinizulu. “And later on, parents need to be more deliberate about providing opportunities for their kids to be engaged in giving back to their community. That is one of the biggest factors to develop gratitude.”