How (and Why!) to Help Children Learn & Practice Gratitude

This year, my husband (who has spent his entire career educating teenagers) became an elementary health/PE teacher. As different as it has been with so many humans under five-foot-tall, he has really thrived figuring out ways to teach them some wellness concepts. Exhibit A: This week’s lesson on gratitude. It has been fun to talk about these ideas and, ultimately learn a few things about how to enhance gratitude in our own littles. Here we go:

Thoughts on Enhancing Gratitude in Children

Scarcity is Our Set-Point, Gratitude is Learned: As evolved as we are, our brains are also still hard-wired for survival. It is far more natural for our brains to focus on what we don’t have/what we could lose, rather than focus on the positive. This is important to keep in mind when we begin teaching gratitude to kids (read: less developed) brains. It is really hard for them to focus on what they do have, rather than disappointments. Be patient as they learn to shift perspective.

You Can’t Be Grateful for Something You Don’t Know: One reason kids have trouble expressing gratitude is because they haven’t practiced. But, another reason is they aren’t aware of differences. Many kids simply don’t know that lots of people in the world go without adequate food, shelter, adult support, friends, education, clothing, safety, and/or opportunity. There are developmentally appropriate ways to help even the smallest children recognize the blessings and privileges they have that many other children do not.

Beginning “Gratituders” Need Categories: Yep, totally made that word up, but it’s a good concept. You cannot learn a sport without skill-specific training, you can’t learn to read until you learn your letters, and you can’t learn to be a strong “gratituder” until someone breaks it down. When kids are asked, “What are you are grateful for?” they often struggle to come up with much. But, when it is broken into categories, they do better. When you first start teaching gratitude to your kiddos, it is more effective to say, “What is one food/time of day/season/friend/ability/activity/family member you are grateful for?” rather than leave it open ended.

Mental Gratitude Pathways Have to be Formed: Speaking of this training, one of the reasons gratitude works is that it literally changes the pathways in our brains. But, these pathways do not form automatically. They have to be traveled over and over and over again for us to “default” to gratitude rather than fear or scarcity. Asking children regularly to practice gratitude may feel repetitive (or even exhausting) but I assure you it is as important as anything else do. We are literally helping to form their brains to be resilient and positive, long after they leave our care.

Gratitude is a Modeled Behavior: This is the age-old truth of parenting — kids pick up far more of what is “caught” than “taught.” If we practice gratitude, our kids are more likely to do so as well. I know, practicing gratitude can be so hard, especially in sad, scary, or difficult situations (like this pandemic we are enduring). But, if we demonstrate gratitude in front of our kids, they will be more likely to do so when they encounter their own struggles. We aren’t pretending things aren’t difficult. We are simply showing them gratitude can exist even when things are so very dark. In a world that can be so challenging, this is so very important for them, and for us.

Okay dear readers, I hope these tips help as you seek to enhance gratitude in yourself and your kiddos. It’s not always easy, but it is definitely, definitely worth it. All the best in your “training!”

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8, NIV

Photo by Alyssa Stevenson on Unsplash, used with permission

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