Gratitude for Kids: How to Teach the Value of Gratitude to Children
“Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions. The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.” Zig Ziglar
Thanksgiving is not the only time we can express gratitude and thankfulness. It is so important to show and practice thankfulness in our day-to-day lives. As parents, teachers, caregivers, and other professionals who work with children and students, it is critical to teach children the meaning of gratitude from a young age. A grateful child who is raised knowing how to feel and express a sense of gratitude grows up to be a well-rounded individual, with a greater level of mindfulness, self-efficacy, and interpersonal skills. In fact, there are several, scientifically-proven benefits of practicing gratitude that serve as tremendous motivation to instill gratitude in your children.
Before we highlight the techniques to use to teach the value of gratitude to children, let’s look at the benefits of being grateful.
The Value of Gratitude for Kids
Gratitude Enhances Empathy
According to a 2012 study conducted by the University of Kentucky, grateful people are more likely to engage in a prosocial manner, even in the face of aggression, negative feedback, or unkindness. They were less likely to retaliate against others who had wronged them, expressing more empathy and sensitivity toward them.
Gratitude Improves Physical Health
Another study published in 2012 reported that grateful people experienced fewer aches, pains, and ailments than other people and overall lived healthier lives. Furthermore, those who scored higher on gratitude scales were more likely to actively engage in self-care practices, exercise more, and schedule regular checkups with their doctors.
Gratitude Improves Sleep
Those who utilize a gratitude journal, writing down things that they are grateful for, reportedly sleep better and longer–especially when writing just before bedtime (2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being).
Gratitude Improves Self-Esteem
Gratitude has been shown to reduce social comparisons, improve athletic and social confidence, and appreciate and celebrate the accomplishments of others. A grateful child exhibits these actions and attitudes which lead to improved self-esteem overall.
Gratitude Can Help Individuals Who Have Experienced Trauma
Not only has research shown that expressing gratitude reduces stress, but doing so may also play a major role in overcoming trauma. A study published in 2003 found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11. Additionally, a 2006 study found that Vietnam War Veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Overall, recognizing the things you do have to be thankful for, even during the worst times of your life, can serve as a protective factor that fosters resilience.
Gratitude Improves Psychological Health
Gratitude has been shown to decrease a wide variety of toxic emotions, such as resentment, prolonged anger, envy, persistent sadness, and regret. Having a grateful attitude is intrinsically linked to a sense of well-being, increasing overall happiness and positive emotions while reducing rates of depression.
Gratitude Improves Relationships
As important as it is to teach our children to use their manners and say, “Please,” and, “Thank you,” thanking others for their contributions also improves both professional and personal relationships. A 2014 study found that those who express gratitude well were more likely to make and keep new friends than those who did not (2014 study published in Emotion).
Overall, it is undeniable that practicing gratitude in our daily lives is beneficial in a myriad of ways. So, how can we instill the value of gratitude into our children? Here are some practical ways for teaching gratitude to kids:
13 Gratitude Activities for Kids
1. Gratitude Jar
Keep a gratitude jar, also known as a thankful jar, somewhere accessible. If you are a parent, this may be on your kitchen table. If you’re a teacher, this may be on your desk or a special station in the classroom. If you’re a therapist, it may be in a prominent place in your office. If possible, let the kids decorate it with their favorite colors or stickers. Each day, ask everyone (including yourself!) to write down one thing they’re thankful for and put it in the jar. You can utilize these gratitude activities to reflect during particularly difficult days.
2. Gratitude Tree
Similarly, you can build a gratitude tree, or thankful tree together. Cut out leaves, have the kids write what they’re grateful for on them, and hang them on a branch.
3. Gratitude Walk
Take a gratitude walk together. Go on an evening stroll and look for things to be grateful for, like the beautiful leaves, the smell of rain, cars to drive, and the friendly neighbors.
Have the kids write letters of gratitude to people they do not know personally, such as police officers, military personnel, the fire department, school administrators, bank tellers, and hospital employees. When possible, hand-deliver the letters with a special treat, or mail them.
5. Thank You Cards
Another great option is to write thank you cards to people you do know. You can write a thank-you letter to mom or dad, to grandma or grandpa for birthday gifts, to a special teacher or pediatrician. Even your mailman or garbage truck drivers deserve appreciation!
6. Gratitude Collage
Make a collage of things you and your children appreciate. Look through magazines or pull up images online to print. Paste them together for a gratitude collage, and display it proudly.
7. Alphabet Thanks
Play the “alphabet thanks” game. For this gratitude practice, have kids pick a letter out of a pile (or just go through the alphabet at random) and ask them to come up with one thing they’re thankful for that starts with that letter.
8. Gratitude by Numbers
Similarly, roll a pair of dice or pick a number between 1 and 10. Based on the number, have kids name that many things they love in this gratitude game.
9. Gratitude Journal
A gratitude journal for kids can have an amazingly positive effect on their overall happiness. Set them in the right direction by asking them to write down a few things that they are grateful for each day. Studies have shown that gratitude journaling has tremendous benefits for physical health and psychological well-being!
10. Family Gratitude Book
This is similar to the individual gratitude journal, but it is created together as a family. Each family member should add photos, notes, drawings, and mementos of anything they feel strongly about. It’s a good idea to keep it visible and add to it regularly, such as once a month at a family meeting or on birthdays and special holidays.
Get the kids involved in the community. Gather food for a food bank or serve meals at a homeless shelter. Research organizations in your area that offer service opportunities. Service to others teaches gratitude in ways that nothing else can.
12. Reading Books
Books are a fantastic and fun way to teach your children about core values and morals. Reading to your children from a young age, as well as helping them learn to read recreationally, can reap lifelong rewards. Fortunately, there are many great children’s books about practicing gratitude!
Check out a few of our favorites:
In this book by Todd and Jackie Courtney, Max the mouse teaches the “power of gratitude” by showing the reader how he is thankful for everything in his life. All of the Max Rhymes books are written and illustrated to not only help children learn to read, but also to help them develop in areas like the expression of gratefulness and overall happiness. Just like prior generations remember traditional nursery rhymes, future generations will remember these positive thoughts at the subconscious level as they grow older.
Since it was first published fifty years ago, Shel Silverstein’s engaging picture book for readers of all ages has offered a touching interpretation of the gift of giving and another’s capacity to love in return. The book is about a lifelong relationship between a selfless tree and an initially selfish child, who grows to realize that he has both friendship and unconditional love for which to be eternally grateful.
Inspired by the idea of being thankful for all that you have, “An Awesome Book of Thanks!” is beautifully written and fantastically illustrated by Dallas Clayton. It takes readers of all ages on a walk through a world of magical unicorns, robotic dinosaurs, and all of life’s simple moments, great and small. This timeless story is sure to be an instant classic and is perfect for anyone looking for a reminder of just how beautiful life can be.
This picture book and accompanying CD are a joyous celebration of the beauty of the seasons, the wonders of nature, and the blessings of faith, to be treasured by children and adults of all ages. It teaches kids to wonder at the world we live in and to be grateful for our everyday blessings.
This guide to daily happiness is not just for kids. We all need reminders of the benefits of positive thinking and behavior. It’s an important lesson for children, older kids, and adults alike that showing kindness and appreciation of others goes a long way to making this world a happier place for everyone, including ourselves. The author, Carol McCloud, uses a simple metaphor of an “invisible bucket” that we each carry around. Kind words and actions “fill” others’ buckets and make them feel good, while unkind words and actions take away from them. When you’re a “bucket filler,” you make the world a better place to be. This 32-page picture book is perfect for children, parents, grandparents, teachers, and people that want to teach empathy, nurture kindness with loved ones and create a positive environment in their home, classroom, workplace, and community.
Additionally, this book can be a tremendous resource when working with kids who are overcoming any adverse childhood experiences or trauma. It can help give children a voice and the words to say when they feel like their own bucket is being emptied while teaching them to show and practice gratitude to the people in their lives.
Written in Dr. Seuss-style rhyme, “The Blankful Heart” by Mr. Meus is a fun and touching tale of how the big-bellied Billy Babble cures his heart of its blanks. The Babbles in Babbleland have way too much stuff, and once Billy Babble, the richest of them all, begins to feel like something is missing, he sets out on a quest to fill his empty heart. The moral of this quirky story is, “A grateful heart is a happy heart.”
“The Thankful Book” celebrates all the little things for which children can give thanks. From everyday activities like reading and bathtime to big family meals together and special alone time between parent and child, author Todd Parr inspires readers to appreciate all of life’s special moments. The fun cartoons and inspirational phrases will encourage your young child to celebrate the things that make their heart feel most grateful.
As with any value in our lives, gratitude must be practiced. As we teach our children the importance of feeling thankful for the good things in our lives, we must also help them practice expressing that gratitude. Here are some ways to cultivate a lifestyle of thankfulness and mindfulness:
Donating helps your children understand how fortunate they are and everything they have to be grateful for, whether it be a roof over their heads, clothing, toys or a loving family. When your child outgrows their clothes or toys, encourage them to donate the items to families and children who have less. Involve your children in the process by researching the available donation centers or charities in your community, and take them with you to make the donation. Your family or organization could also hold a garage sale to raise funds. You can donate the money raised to a cause that you and your children find together, or use the money to buy groceries for your local food bank.
Overall, no matter which gratitude activities you choose to incorporate, teaching gratitude will help your children grow up to be well-rounded, empathic, and caring adults. There is nothing quite like investing in the future of our world. Whether you are a parent, grandparent, caregiver, social worker, educator, or another professional working with children, know that you are making a difference. Children’s Bureau is grateful for you!