Teaching children to show gratitude

More than “thank you.”

Expressing gratitude contributes to a young person's personal sense of wellbeing. Photo credit: Pixabay.

Expressing gratitude contributes to a young person's personal sense of wellbeing. Photo credit: Pixabay.

I got home from work today and was happy to find a hand addressed envelope that didn’t appear to be a bill or a solicitation in my mail.  Curiosity got the best of me, and so, putting down my groceries, I opened the envelope before doing anything else.   Inside I found a very pretty homemade card from a young person thanking me for sponsoring a trophy that they had just won.  To say the least, the card brought a smile to my face and a lift to my disposition.  I thought about that later and wondered at the change that card had made on my attitude and appreciated the young person for taking the time to say “thanks.”   Reflecting on that change, I was curious and decided to do a little research of my own to see if there was anything to support my personal observation or if it was just a “nice thing.”   As far back as 1938 people were doing research on the relationship between expressing gratitude and social emotional health, according to Michigan State University Extension.

Assistant professor and clinical psychologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, Sheela Raja Ph.D. found in her research on human subjects, that a sense of gratitude improves emotional health and decreases stress levels in the person showing gratitude.  Raja noted that people who are able to express gratitude are also more likely to remain positive.  A Gallup survey conducted in 1998 had 90 percent of the adult respondents indicated that expressing gratitude helped them feel extremely happy or somewhat happy. This followed by a 2000 research study by Emmons and Crumpler that reported a conscious focus on gratitude led to feeling that life was more meaningful and productive. My interest peaked; I continued my personal search and learned that there are positive benefits for young people too.   I was interested to learn that expressing gratitude contributes to a young person’s personal sense of wellbeing and is even linked to academic success.

So how do people develop a focus on gratitude?  Is it something we are born with?  Is it something we do naturally?  Or, is it something that is taught and learned?  Is it genetic?  Research shows that feeling and expressing gratitude is a learned behavior. With many positive impacts, it’s certainly one that children benefit from. However, helping young people develop a sense of gratitude is more than reminding them to say “thank you” as an automatic response when appropriate.  Just like in many other areas, the best way to teach young children is to model the behavior.  The best way to model gratitude is by talking about the things we are appreciative of – a sunny day, a little rain, pretty flowers in the garden, a play date with friends or a gift from grandma.  Adults should also model expressing gratitude in meaningful ways which includes a heartfelt “thank you” rather than the automatic response.  Kids can learn to express their gratitude in a number of ways such as making and sending cards or pictures, offering their help in return, picking a bouquet of flowers, making cookies or raking the leaves.  A group of kids put together 101 Ways To Say Thank You Any Day of the Year at NorthTexasKids.com, but you and your children can sit down and create your own list of ideas.  A little thoughtfulness, an appreciative heart and a little creativity can go a long way when it comes to expressing gratitude and promoting social-emotional health, and even success in school.

Who would have guessed that not only did receiving a thank you note brighten my day, but thinking of it and writing the note to express her gratitude was actually beneficial to the young girl as well.

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