Teaching Kids How to Be Grateful
Studies show that grateful kids do better in almost every metric than their non-grateful peers. But how do you even start to cultivate something as ambiguous as gratitude?
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Ungrateful: it’s one of the parental big guns, the sort of word you reach for when you’re being pushed to the edge. But now a growing body of research suggests that cultivating gratitude in your children could be more than just a question of manners. It could also be a way of making your child happier, calmer and able to form stronger relationships. So how exactly do we take our inherently self-centred children and make them care about the outside world? The answer is both simpler and more profound than you might expect.
When you’re in the day-to-day routine of raising kids, it can be easy to forget how much childhood has changed, even in the space of a single generation. Children today often live lives of exceptional plenty, where the immense benefits of growing up in the well-to-do West happen to them as if by magic. Delicious, healthy food arrives on their plate; entertainment is beamed to their iPad; well-meaning chauffeurs or parents drive them wherever they need. Their bedrooms are cathedrals to various whims and amusements, often expensive and quickly forgotten.
Amanda Miller is the chair of Kids in Philanthropy, a not-for-profit group dedicated to developing gratitude in children by making giving an everyday activity. As she tells me, “It’s about trying to help kids recognise that even though their life might be very comfortable and they’ve got everything they need, there might be kids living only fifteen minutes away who face a very different set of circumstances.” For Miller, the light-bulb moment came when she realised that the biggest problem her children had faced in the previous week was when the wi-fi stopped working. “I just started to think that this wasn’t the real world—my kids are living in a bubble. How can I expose my children to what’s going on out there?”
This certainly isn’t a call for a return to a childhood of privation, but gratitude by its very nature requires a sense of one’s place in the world, and all too often children are denied the opportunity to develop these perspectives. It’s about re-involving children in the conditions of their day-to-day existence—from cooking to chores to their own education. When they begin to grasp that, they can begin to understand how their way of life might be different to those around them.
While the importance of gratitude in adulthood has been well-documented by researchers, its role in the development of children is less understood. Indeed, prior to 2006 there hadn’t been any research on the topic at all. Perhaps gratitude seemed too nebulous a concept at a time when the question of a child’s advancement was more and more one to be answered by their school grades. But then came a rash of studies, all of which pointed to the same conclusion: getting children to count their blessings is one of the best things you can do for them.
In one of the most significant bits of research, 221 eleven- and twelve-year-olds were split into two groups. For the next three weeks, one group wrote a daily list of things they were grateful for, while the other group compiled a list of their “hassles”. The results were clear: the group who focused on the positives reported significantly higher levels of gratitude, optimism and life satisfaction, as well as diminished rates of negative feeling. They were also more socially inclined and able to offer more emotional support to others. The findings were similar when fourteen- to nineteen-year-olds were asked the same questions: grateful teenagers were more engaged with their community, had better grades, and were less depressed and materialistic.
Of course, this raises the question: how do we create grateful kids? And when do kids even become capable of gratitude? Developmental psychology suggests gratitude is a phenomenon that most children don’t fully grasp until they’re on the cusp of adolescence. For instance, only one in five six-year-olds will instinctively say “thank you” when given sweets, while it’s almost universal by the time a child turns ten.
Yet it’s these early days when a child’s core behaviours are formed, and evidence suggests that gratitude, like most things, is a skill to be learnt. “Kids at this age are always looking to their parents to work out what to do,” says Miller. “If you make gratitude and giving to others part of what the family values and talks about, then your kids are going to grow up thinking that’s how things should work.” This can take in everything from asking kids to help prepare dinner—a proven way of reducing fussiness—to putting them in charge of household duties or just simply saying “thank you” yourself, when it’s warranted. The more autonomy kids build, the more likely they are to understand the work that goes into providing for them, and how lucky they are that it does.
But for Miller the real work starts outside the home—and it’s never too early to start trying to grow this awareness in your children. Kids in Philanthropy welcomes children as young as five into its programs. A big focus of their work is on putting kids in situations where they’re exposed to a social justice issue, such as homelessness, and then given the capacity to do something about it. “If you empower kids, they get it,” Miller says. “Getting them there in the first place can be difficult, but once you have the kids involved they never go back.” A typical example is Hangout for the Homeless, when families spend a night sleeping outside on cardboard boxes while also helping to prepare support packs for people who are actually living on the streets.
But all of this requires buy-in from the parents, and that’s where a lot of the work goes on. “If kids have ideas about ways they can help, they’re going to need their parents to help make that happen. Over the years I’ve discovered that while there are some kids who are resistant, more often it’s the parents who stand in the way.” This goes back to the fundamental tenet of teaching gratitude: be as you want your children to be. Basically, if you want your children to say thank you, and mean it, make sure you’re doing it too. And if you want them to give back to their community, well, you better be there right by their side. “Something I do love about this kind of work is that you’re also raising empathy and awareness in adults, because a lot of parents aren’t exposed to these sorts of issues either.”
Miller has witnessed the effects of this commitment on her own children, Hannah, Gabe and Zac. “Once they’re clicked into this way of thinking, they start to naturally think of other things they can do.” For years, instead of asking for presents at their parties, her children began asking for donations instead. “The amazing part of it is that this starts influencing other kids and then suddenly you have all these children competing with each other as to who can raise the most money for their birthday.” After taking part in Hangout for the Homeless one year, Hannah staged a blanket donation drive at her school and collected more than one hundred blankets to donate to a local shelter—all with Amanda’s assistance, of course. “The beauty of doing it together with your kids is not only that you’re doing something as a family, but also that it raises these questions that can lead to really illuminating conversations. Now when we sit around the dinner table, we’re not just talking about school or sports. We’re able to have these discussions around homelessness and social justice, too.”
Gratitude isn’t a question of making superheroes out of your kids. It’s about giving them a solid platform from which to make their transition towards adulthood—one built on hope, optimism and a sense of community. The psychological benefits of such an approach now seem manifest, but the philosophers have been telling us this stuff for thousands of years: put gratitude out into the world, and you’ll be paid back in happiness and success. It’s just about taking the abstract and making it real, day to day and year to year, both for yourself and for the people who need it more than you. As Miller sums it up: “If you involve children in meaningful, hands-on activities, it develops empathy by exposing them to experiences outside of their own. But it also makes them happy—and at a time when children’s mental health is such an issue, with distancing technology and instant gratification all around, that is something to be treasured.”
Six ways to practice gratitude with your kids – Amanda Miller
1. Talk to your kids about social justice issues. Whether you see a story about homelessness on the news or something in the streets, take the opportunity to discuss these issues with them. They’re probably already concerned about something and would love the chance to talk about it.
2. Install three money jars: one for spending, one for saving and one for giving away. If they get money from the Tooth Fairy, maybe encourage them to split it so that at least some of it goes to people who need it more than them.
3. Encourage your kids to go through their toys and their books and choose some they could donate to an op shop or book drive. If they’re given the authority to decide what they want to give away, they’ll be more generous and feel better about doing it.
4. Plan a bake day or garage sale with your kids, help them organise it and then let them decide where the money they’ve raised should go. It’s about facilitating rather than directing their philanthropic impulses. When they feel like the project is their own, they’re more likely to devote time and energy to it and find the execution rewarding.
5. Volunteer in the community. It can be hard to find opportunities to do this with younger children, but organisations like Kids in Philanthropy or Kids Giving Back are good places to start.
6. If they’re interested in a social justice issue, suggest that they make a video or write a story about it to share with friends and family. It’s a way of not only articulating their sense of right and wrong, but also exercising their creativity in service of something bigger.
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