The research is growing which confirms the benefits of cultivating gratitude in our kids. Among a group of 122 elementary school kids taught a week-long curriculum on concepts around giving, gratitude grew, according to a study published in 2014 in School Psychology Review. The heightened thankfulness translated into action: 44% of the kids in the curriculum opted to write thank-you notes when given the opportunity following a PTA presentation. In the control group, 25% wrote notes.
Gratitude works like a muscle. If time is taken to recognize good fortune, feelings of appreciation can increase. Those who are less grateful gain the most from a concerted effort. “Gratitude treatments are most effective in those least grateful,” says Eastern Washington University psychology professor Philip Watkins. In a 2008 study, 221 kids in seventh and eighth grade were assigned to list five things they were grateful for every day for two weeks. It was found that they had a better outlook on school and greater life satisfaction just three weeks later, compared to kids assigned to list five hassles. Other studies found that among high school students who showed high levels of gratitude, for instance thankfulness for the beauty of nature and strong appreciation of other people, reported having stronger GPAs, less depression and envy and a more positive outlook than less grateful teens.
I’m betting there is not a parent reading this who doesn’t wish his kids were better at showing gratitude for the blessings they enjoy every day. But I would suggest that before you go running to create your “gratitude chart”to encourage the new skill, you first take a look at how much gratitude is a part of your lives as parents. I know many times we may be grateful but the thought is never given voice. It is also true that sometimes we as parents struggle to be grateful ourselves! The truth is that like most character qualities, the ability to see and acknowledge the good in our lives, as the old adage goes “is better caught than taught.” I remember once when my oldest son was about five or six years old and I was urging he and his brother off to bath time to great resistance. He looked at me and indignantly asked, “How come you never take a bath?” I was taken aback by his observation before laughing out loud. In my son’s mind because he never saw me take a bath I must never take one. The lesson here is relevant. It doesn’t matter how grateful we are in our own minds and hearts because gratitude is most effective and beneficial when it is spoken or otherwise publicly acknowledged. Our kids need to see and hear our gratitude so that it becomes a part of their DNA. If your children aren’t grateful, maybe the first step is to increase your gratitude output as parents.
It is important that we also examine what kinds of things our kids are grateful for. Teens who strongly connected buying and owning things with success and happiness reported having lower GPAs, more depression and a more negative outlook. “Materialism had just the opposite effect as gratitude—almost like a mirror,”says study co-author Jeffrey Froh, associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University. Internet shopping has made acquisition so easy, the value of goods can be harder to recognize. There is no prioritizing. No desiring. No patiently waiting. It just shows up on the doorstep. Studies show that in the years between 1976 to 2007, high school seniors’ desire for lots of money has increased while the willingness to work hard to earn it has decreased.
Sometimes our kids experience a disconnect between hard work and benefit. It can be beneficial for our kids to hear us weighing the choices we must make as parents when it comes to how we will spend our family income. Some weeks we have enough for groceries but not enough for a family trip to the ice cream store. It’s OK for them to hear how we come to that conclusion and recognize even adults have to choose discriminately from week to week. Hard work results in material benefit. However, even though we work very hard sometimes we have to choose which goods will be prioritized. Make your kids part of the process sometimes so they can gain awareness of that connection.
The truth is that we adults work hard for a reward. Sometimes that reward is monetary but sometimes it is for acknowledgement of a job well done or a useful talent. We like to be thanked for our efforts so it makes sense that one way we can encourage our kids to practice gratitude is to let them “get hooked” on the great sense of satisfaction that comes with the verbal appreciation of their best efforts, reinforcing that joy and satisfaction can come in non-material ways too.
In summary, grateful kids are happier, less depressed, have a better outlook on school, higher GPAs, and greater life satisfaction. Given habitual opportunities to think about giving to others and seeing gratitude modeled in their home increases kids’ gratitude muscle, resulting in a host of benefit to them. It might just improve your quality of life as well.