Tips on Teaching Your Child Gratitude – Joleen Watson, MS, NCC


With the Holiday season right around the corner, it’s a time where kids of all ages are creating their “lists” of what gifts they want to receive—that’s a great part of the holiday season as a child!

The holidays can also be a great time to teach children not only how to receive, but also to help them learn the art of gratitude.

In Robert Emmons book, Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, his research showed that people who regularly practice gratitude have better relationships with others, report better mood, higher self-esteem, sleep better and have more energy. Feeling fortunate for what we have can be more rewarding than any material gift in the long run!  But research on appreciation and gratitude also shows that it’s not a natural part of development in children—it’s learned behavior.

Here are several tips to help your child learn gratitude this holiday season and beyond:

  • Be a good role model for gratitude.  Say “please” and “thank you” faithfully in your family—not just the big stuff, but for everything!  Let your children hear your words of gratitude daily, whether it’s gratitude for something small or large.  Modeling gratitude is one of the best ways to encourage this practice in a child.  Help your child recognize gratitude for things they may take for granted on a daily basis, as well learning how to feel a sense of gratitude for difficult times in life.
  • Have your child pick one present they received this holiday season and have them donate it to a less fortunate child or family.  Have a discussion with your child about what it would be like to go without presents on Christmas—what might that be like for another child?  Doing this in a non-shaming way (do not guilt them!) and having them take an active role in giving to others who are less fortunate can help them learn empathy for others who are unable to afford presents.  During this process, engage in a dialogue with your child about the non-material aspects of the holiday season by asking them:  “If you presents weren’t a part of the holiday, what would you enjoy most about this time of year?” (for example, quality time with family and friends, giving to others, etc).  All of these things can help your child shift their thinking from one of entitlement to one of gratitude.
  • Help your child learn the act of service.  There are so many organizations that need volunteers and people who need help throughout the year.  Helping your child learn to give to others can create a sense of warmth and appreciation by giving back.  Whether it’s an elderly neighbor who needs help getting their mail, contributing to their own family’s household chores, or a helping the busy family down the block shovel their sidewalk after a big snow, giving to others helps a child feel a sense of purpose.  Talk to your children about what felt good to them by giving to others.  What did it make them feel more grateful for in their own lives?
  • Develop a routine of gratitude in your family.  Ask your children regularly during dinner, bedtime or while driving home from school: “What is one thing you felt grateful for today?”.  Actively participate in the discussion by sharing your own feelings of gratitude.  Keep a gratitude notebook in a place that is accessible to all family members and make it a practice to write things down in it, sharing it during meal times.  Making this a regular part of the daily or weekly routine in your family will help this become more natural for a child in their own development. Allow your child to express gratitude in their own way, even if it seems like something silly to you as a parent.  For older tweens and teens, allow them to come up with their own gratitude routines.  It will feel less like a “command” and encourage them to take more ownership in the routine, while fostering and respecting independence and autonomy.
  • Sit down with your children after the holidays (and throughout the year) and help them write thank you notes to others.  This helps them literally show gratitude and feel a sense of appreciation for when they receive from others.  Thank you notes don’t have to be just for gifts—help your kids use thank you notes to express when they feel gratitude for anything in their life!

Remember that gratitude is a practice that needs to be regularly implemented—not just during the holiday season.  Helping your child look for thanks and gratitude throughout the year in small ways will reap an abundance of rewards for them later on…  Thank you so much for reading!!

photo source

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  • Joanna

    Some of these are very good tips (such as writing thank you notes; I have had my daughter help “decorate” her thank you notes — with stickers and coloring — since she was at least two) — but I have to take exception to the idea of taking one of the presents the child receives at the holiday and using it for a donation. As a gift giver to other children, and someone who provides suggestions for gifts to my child to others, this idea seems very *un*-grateful to me. I put thought and care into gifts I give children, and having them turn around and immediately donate them is not showing me gratitude. Not to mention that forcing a child to donate something they just received means you are teaching the child not that Christmas is about giving, but that it is about taking away.

    What we do is, approximately every six months, go through and say “you just got a lot of new things for Christmas/your birthday, is there anything you don’t play with anymore that we could give to kids who don’t have toys”? I also let my daughter help pick out the toys and other items to fill our Operation Shoe Box donation and the gift list from a child served by our community food shelf.

  • I love that you are so active with thank you notes with your daughter! Joleen presents an option for parents with the idea of donating a gift received immediately – although not for everyone by any means, just an option. I do like the opportunity it does to create a dialogue about those who do not receive new presents and always get ‘used’ items. You can incorporate the same type of message in your family in ways that feel comfortable to you. We do Operation Shoe Box too – that is another great way to give from the heart and teach. 🙂

  • our children only receive three gifts from us for christmas (a spiritual, physical and emotional gift). they do receive additional gifts from grandparents, but not many. i also have an issue with taking a new gift and turning around and giving it away. i think the giver of that gift would also. several times a year we go through toys/clothes and donate those to faith based organizations (especially a children’s home i worked at previously).

    our eight year old just had a birthday this weekend ~ instead of toys for him, his friends brought unwrapped gifts that we are donating to a christmas toy drive. the children (the oldest two) are also taking money from their piggy banks to purchase mosquito netting for african children.

    i enjoy your blog and the ideas represented. i don’t recall how i stumbled upon it many months ago but i enjoy the variety of articles and how relevant they are to successful parenting. thanks!

  • Thanks Joanna! I will surely pass on your comments to the actual author, Joleen Watson – she does a wonderful job of sharing different perspectives with you all – I so appreciate other’s input and not just my own. Love to create conversation too!

  • paola

    great post Susan, I love the gratitude image you are using here, does it have royalty rights? I am a Holistic Health Coach and gratitude is one cornerstone in my philosophy. I would appreciate if I could I use this image as part of a collage for my facebook page (which I will be launching soon: Be wise Be Healthy). Please let me know!

    Many thanks, Paola

  • you can get the source at the bottom of the article. 🙂

  • I love this post and I’m happy to see we naturally do so many of these. We could work on the discussing gratitude daily, but we try to instill gratitude regularly. We do runs and walks for causes, which I really love- to show the kids we care about other and we are physically active too!

    Today I wrote a post about kids writing Thank You cards to show gratitude. I hope you like it!

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