Children are not born grateful. But parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, friends, and pastors can help rectify this, according to Susan Rogers, academic director of PLNU’s Early Childhood Learning Center, associate professor of child and adolescent development in the Department of Family and Consume Sciences, and mom of two grown children.
“It’s important to realize that gratitude isn’t something that is natural for children. It has to be taught,” Rogers said.
The best way to teach children to be grateful is to model thankful behavior as part of daily life. But it’s not enough to simply be polite.
“We have to show empathy and provide emotional coaching for children—to help them understand why we are doing things and why we are thankful,” she said. “We can point out the sacrifice another person made for us. It’s part of teaching them to think outside themselves.”
Here are some of Rogers’ other top recommendations for parents and others who care for children.
Practice conflict resolution.
Teaching children how to resolve problems and differences without making accusative statements helps put them on a path toward empathy and gratitude.
“We can work on not being negative and critical ourselves,” Rogers said.
In addition, helping kids role-play various situations and explaining the reasons for politeness can make a big difference. Likewise, role-playing expressing gratitude to others can give children the chance to think about why others might do something good for them and why that ought to inspire their thankfulness.
Provide daily routines that involve expressing gratitude.
In our society, grateful feelings are often expressed seasonally—usually around Thanksgiving or perhaps on holidays like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Rogers suggests making thanksgiving a part of daily living instead.
“Routines like prayer give us the opportunity to talk about what God has provided for us, His goodness, and His creation,” she said. “Beyond the prayer itself, we can talk with children about why we pray.”
Another routine Rogers suggests is having children share two things from their day for which they are thankful before bed. Parents can share their thoughts, too.
“It is a fun way to say good night,” said Rogers.
Rogers also suggests teaching children to write thank you cards and, again, explaining to them why they are doing it. Younger children can narrate what they would like to say or draw pictures to include with the note.
Involve children in serving others.
Taking the opportunity to serve others as a family can be a powerful way to help children appreciate all they have rather than focusing on what they want but lack.
“San Diego First Church of the Nazarene prepares homeless bags, for example,” Rogers said. “Putting the bags together as a family and talking about why you are doing it can be really beneficial. Children can also help serve food to the less fortunate. My own children, who are adults now, still volunteer with us at Special Olympics. It’s become something that is important to them now.
While teaching naturally egocentric children to think of others and appreciate the blessings in their lives takes time, the benefits are great. Grateful children are not just more polite.
“Being grateful makes children happier,” Rogers said. “It helps them feel valued. That’s a gift all children deserve.