Teaching gratitude to kids is one of the more challenging parts of parenthood. Not only is bring grateful a really abstract concept for young children but, by nature, little ones are pretty self-centered (in a blissfully unaware way, of course). But this is one of the most important things you can teach your kids—practicing gratitude sets kids up to be more sensitive and empathetic to the plights of others, as well as less demanding and entitled overall. Many experts also say that being grateful leads to increased overall happiness (and that goes for us too, fellow adults).
Sometimes we shy away from attempting to teach such a hugely abstract thing at a very young age, but the truth is, our kids are there waiting for us to do so. Babies as young as 18 months can begin to understand that they are taken care of by others and that others do things to make them happy—a foundational concept for learning appreciation. By 2 years old, toddlers can start to articulate things they are thankful for, like Mommy and Daddy or their favorite toys or pets. And, by age 4, little brains can start to understand that gratitude can encompass not only things and people but also acts of kindness and love.
Babies as young as 18 months can begin to understand that they are taken care of by others and that others do things to make them happy—a foundational concept for learning appreciation.
Though understanding how to be grateful is essentially a lifelong learning process, there are many ways to begin to instill those qualities in your children in a gentle and relatable way. These simple activities will help you begin the conversation with your kids, and the consistency of those conversations will plant the seeds to grow a truly grateful and happy child.
1. Model gratitude out loud
This seems to be an obvious one, but it’s one we all slack on. So much of what we think or feel stays within us, mostly for the better (hello, frustration), but not always. Our children learn the most by what we do and say and they learn just as much from what we don’t do or say. If you’re not actively practicing outward appreciation and gratitude in a way that is accessible and descriptive, there’s a good chance that it will be a much harder concept for your children to learn.
Practicing this is not at all complicated. Simply take time to pause in small moments and say out loud what comes to your heart and head. It can be something small like, “Wow, these trees with changing leaves are just beautiful. Nature is just so stunning, and I love sharing these moments with you.” Or take a brief moment when you’re in line at the checkout counter: “Look at this full grocery cart with all of this delicious and healthy food. We are so fortunate to be able to bring this home to our family.”
It doesn’t take much—saying these things out loud will make it easier for your children to understand gratitude and learn just what things are the ones to be thankful for.
2. Make a gratitude tree or jar
Young kids love visuals, and gratitude trees or gratitude jars are an easy way to keep gratitude at the forefront of your family’s mind on a day-to-day basis. These can be decorated as simply or complex as you want, but the bottom line remains the same. Each day, each person writes one thing they are grateful for on a leaf for the tree or on a note for the jar. Little ones might need a nudge at first, but soon they’ll catch on with examples from the rest of the family. The best thing about this is being able to hear what’s important and meaningful in the hearts of your kids.
And as the leaves and notes begin to add up, you get a powerful visual of all the wonderful things there are to be grateful for.
3. Read books
I don’t think I’ve ever written any sort of parenting article that doesn’t include this advice because it’s a big one. Reading with your kids is so important on so many levels, but one of the greatest advantages your kids will have from being exposed to a variety of wonderful children’s literature is the window they’ll gain into the outside world.
Kids’ worlds are small and consist of the things within their mental and emotional grasp—their family, their friends, their schools, their things. Books allow a perspective outside of that, to people and places they don’t normally see or hear of. Books also teach through visual images and storytelling, which is easier for kids to understand and relate to their own lives and experiences.
4. Make a gratitude collage
Similar to a gratitude tree or jar, a collage can be a great visual for your child in helping to see the goodness in their life. Simply gather some printed photos, magazines, and catalogs, and have your child cut (or cut for them as they point) out things that they appreciate in their life and are grateful for.
I learned quite a bit while doing this with my older son—as we talked and he chose items like healthy food and books and puzzles, I could see what was important to him and what he learned from me even when I thought he wasn’t watching. We hung the collage in his room—right where he can see it every day and night.
5. Donate with your children
Making a point to donate grown-out clothes and gently used toys is a simple way to make a big difference. Help your kids go through their things and put aside something that might make another little child happy or that another child could use.
Not only will this help clear the clutter, but it also begins to instill a sense of generosity and a separation of happiness and things. It allows them the experience of letting go and giving at the same time.
If your children are older, talk them through the process of choosing a place to give to. You can discuss the joy other kids will get in using the new-to-them items, as a way to encourage connectivity and empathy.
6. Talk about it
Be open about gratitude and help them talk through their experiences. The Raising Grateful Children project at UNC-Chapel Hill notes that gratitude has four parts, but parents rarely teach them all. They offer the NOTICE-THINK-FEEL-DO model:
- What do we NOTICE in our lives for which we can be grateful?
- How do we THINK about why we have been given those things?
- How do we FEEL about the things we have been given?
- What do we DO to express appreciation in turn?
By prompting questions surrounding these notions in conversations with your children as they go through life, experience things, and receive various gifts, you can help to increase their emotional and mental capacity for appreciation and gratitude.
7. Make gratitude part of your day, every day
Many families choose to take turns expressing their thanks at the dinner table, others make the time before bed. Whatever it is, keep it regular. Doing this daily will help your child get into the routine to practice thinking about gratitude throughout their day as they get closer to the time when it’s their turn to say their piece.
This article was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for timeliness.