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Gratitude Is More Than Just Saying Thank You

New parenting study offers tips for helping kids really understand what they’re thankful for

November 16, 2021
Bright post-its reading "Thank you"

Saying thank you is easy. We (mostly) do it every day, without giving it much thought. Someone hands you change at a store, you say thank you. At the bottom of your emails, you write “thanks!” just before adding your name. And next week, at Thanksgiving, however you celebrate the day, you may mention something you’re thankful for — maybe it’s the person taking a walk with you or the table full of amazing pies. 

But as a new set of parenting strategies from the Making Caring Common project at Harvard notes, “Gratitude is about more than saying thank you or saying you feel grateful.” If we want to help kids truly develop gratitude, adults need to go a step further — they need to teach kids to notice (who or what we’re grateful for) and think (about why we’re grateful), on a regular basis. And, as the study notes, “Because some kids can find it difficult to understand why they’re grateful, it’s also important for trusted adults to share or model their own gratitude.” When this happens, kids will not only better understand what gratitude really means, but it will help them “feel good about their gratitude.”
 
Below are four key steps from Making Caring Common for adults to try to help kids learn how to notice and think about the people and things they are thankful for.

1. Practice looking

Encourage kids to practice looking for one person or thing they’re grateful for. You can briefly explain what it means to feel grateful, such as “to appreciate how someone or something makes us feel because of the things they do or make possible for us.” Together you can try this gratitude search activity, looking for sources of gratitude like “something or someone that makes me laugh” or “someone that helps or supports me, even when I don’t ask.”

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If we want to help kids truly develop gratitude, adults need to go a step further — they need to teach kids to notice (who or what we’re grateful for) and think (about why we’re grateful), on a regular basis.

2. Think about the “why”

Have kids write, draw, or make something that represents the person or thing they feel grateful for and encourage them to think about why they are grateful for that person or thing. Kids can also write or doodle their responses to questions about the person or thing they are grateful for. Things they should keep in mind:

  • What specific action, quality, or thing are you grateful for? For example, if you say you’re grateful for your teacher, a specific action could be that your teacher stays late after class if you need more help with a problem.  
  • What did they have to give up or do for you to feel grateful? For example, you might notice that your teacher isn’t grading homework after class but is grading at home after work hours so she can help you more at school.
  • What do those sacrifices or actions mean to you and why? For example, you may decide to be extra helpful to your teacher because she has helped you so much. You may come to feel not only appreciation for your teacher, but also pride for doing something good in return. 

3. Share your gratitude

Together, share what you’re thankful for and why. For example, “I feel gratitude for Grandpa because he always makes me laugh, even when I’m sad” or “I’m grateful for where we live because we get to see trees every day.” Tip for adults from MCC: Take this moment to reflect on and share your own gratitude. Too often, we keep things from kids that might actually help them respect or trust us more. 

4. Make it a habit

Get in the habit of noticing and thinking about gratitude while doing everyday activities. It can be fun to write down on sticky notes people and things you’re grateful for — and why you’re grateful — and then papering an entire wall at home! Or, you can take advantage of ordinary moments that allow you to pause, notice, and ask each other simple questions like, “How does it make you feel that [so-and-do] did something nice for you this week? Why do you think they did it?”

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