Many children learn to say "please" and "thank you" at an early age, but truly instilling a sense of appreciation in a child goes beyond teaching words. Dr. Andrea Hussong, clinical psychologist and director of the Center For Developmental Science at the University of North Carolina, studies gratitude research and has spent the past three years directing a project called Raising Grateful Children. The ongoing study has been looking at the different ways to cultivate gratitude in young children.
Dr. Hussong and her team of psychologists held focus groups and lab visits with 100 middle-class families with kids ages 6 to 9. When we asked her why they decided to look at that specific age group, she explained it's during this time that children are able to distinguish the difference between an insincere thank you and a genuine one.
"Kids are learning a lot of things during this time, and some of what they're developing is what we call other-focused emotions, our ability to understand somebody else's perspective," Dr. Hussong told POPSUGAR.
The kids who have been participating in these focus groups are now ages 9 to 12 and continue to visit the lab with their families a few times a year. From what they've gathered so far, Dr. Hussong and her team have identified four ways parents teach gratitude.
- Modeling behavior: How you model gratitude in front of your children, intentionally or not, is something they will pick up on.
- Taking initiative: Through a process called niche selection, you can foster gratitude by choosing the environments your kids hang out in. This can be done by volunteering with them at a homeless shelter or encouraging them to spend time with friends who are respectful.
- Having conversations: Instead of having one sit-down conversation about gratitude, data shows that gratitude is best learned through daily conversations.
- Responding to missed opportunities: The way you react when your child doesn't show gratitude can also influence the process. The goal isn't to correct their behavior but to try to understand how they're reading the situation.
"Often, [parents] will go in and assume the child is not being grateful because they're entitled, but it could be that the child has a different desire in that moment," Dr. Hussong said. "So you may have needed that child to say thank you to Grandma, and maybe at that moment the kid really needed to go tell their friend something, and that was really important to them, and that was why they missed it."
Thinking about the situation from that perspective and then reshaping the conversation to help them understand what's more of a priority can help drive the message further than simply telling them to say thank you.
Though Dr. Hussong is still in the process of gathering data to show how these methods have shaped the participants as preteens, we already know some of the benefits associated with learning gratitude. Dr. Hussong said that being grateful leads to having more empathy and better social skills. And as adults, expressing gratitude can help improve your relationships and even your health.
So, the next time you ask your kid, "What do you say?" after something warrants appreciation, take the extra step to turn it into a learning opportunity!