Everyday Ways To Teach Your Kids Gratitude

Published on: November 06, 2020

Contrary to what we know, gratitude is not inherent to young kids. Galina tells us how we can teach about gratitude and set our kids up for a life of being appreciative. 


By Galina Kalinina 


“He’s so ungrateful!” About a year ago, my son, who is now four-and-a-half, became a big fan of Lego. He got obsessed with unpacking new boxes and wanted to do it every week! Whenever we went to Emporium, he would beg, “I want new Lego.”  

At first, we felt okay to buy it. He looked so happy when he was building new things and we could not resist to give him more of that. We used the “Birthday Wish List” strategy, which worked for a while, but soon it started getting out of control.  

My husband complained, “We’d think he’d be grateful for all the toys that we have already bought for him.” 

Before we labeled our son as ‘an ungrateful kid’ we asked ourselves a question, “How did we contribute to the problem?” 

The answer to this question made us realize that our parenting was largely the source of the problem and that this situation was not a challenge, but a gift to teach our son the art of gratitude. 

Gratitude is a learned behavior. No one is born with it. Recognizing that somebody has made an effort for you and showing a sign of kindness is not something that comes naturally to children. By learning how to be grateful, children develop one of the most important life skills —  emotional literacy. They become aware of other people’s feelings and develop empathy and compassion. 

When To Start Teaching Gratitude

Before we talk about the strategies, let’s look at when exactly a child’s brain can comprehend the concept of gratitude: 

  • 18 months: Around this age, all kids start realizing that other people have feelings. Even though the kids can’t articulate their appreciation, they begin to understand concepts that lead to gratitude. Toddlers notice that parents do things to make them happy (playing with them, reading to them, or offering them their favorite food).
  • 2 to 3 years: Children start talking and expressing their appreciation for material things, toys, and people’s attention using simple words like “Thank you” or just pointing at things with their fingers. 
  • 4 years: Children become verbal and at the same time, their brain is finally capable of understanding gratitude not only for material things like toys but also for acts of kindness, love, and caring. When my son turned four, we started our little family dinner ritual where we would go around the dinner table each night and say one “Thank you” to each other for that day. 

Things You Can Do To Teach Gratitude

  1. Say “Thank you”: Monkey see, monkey do. Children model their parents in every way, so use “Thank you” when you talk to them. You also want to show your child that it’s essential to look into each other’s eyes when this happens. As a parent, I would go on my knees to reach the same height level as my son, look into his eye and say full-heartedly, “Thank you.” While it may feel like a forced thank you for little kids, you can frame it as a first step in the process. 
  2. Go beyond “Thank you”: Bring the gratitude into your daily family conversations. Try to inject your words of appreciation into ordinary things. “I’m so happy when you help me to tidy up the toys.” “We’re so lucky to have a balcony, and we can plant the flowers for you to look after.” “Isn’t it wonderful that you can listen to your body and recognize that you are hungry and ask for snacks?”
  3. Promote a thank-you note culture:  “If you were to write a thank you note for somebody at school, who would you write it for?” I would invite my son to reflect on the week at school and ask if he wants to acknowledge anyone for their kindness and care. My son’s first thank you notes were just scribbles, then they became drawings, and now that he knows how to write, he does his own letters and gives the notes to his teacher.
  4. Dig deeper: As your child gets better at expressing gratitude, ask why he is grateful for something and how it affects him. When children receive birthday presents, you can encourage them to write a personal thank you note to people who gave them. Ask some of the questions like, “What do you think about this present? What do you feel about this present? What about this gift that makes you feel happy?”
  5. Share your gratitude at bedtime: Take five minutes at the end of the day to ask your child what he is thankful for that day. “What was the best part of your day? What was the not-so-best part of your day? 
  6. Read books about kindness: One of my favorite books is Have You Filled a Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids by Carol McCloud.  It’s a book that uses a metaphor of a bucket, and when we choose to be kind, we fill not only the buckets of those around us but also our own bucket!
  7. Watch kindness movies:  Spend time together as a family watching kindness movies like Trolls, Up, Finding Dory, or Zootopia,

And remember to be patient! You can’t expect gratitude to develop overnight. It requires months and years of reinforcement. But if you stick with it, you will be rewarded. While it’s still a work in progress, I can now report that a year after my Lego parenting breakdown, my son is a grateful and patient boy who is just as excited about requesting gifts for his sister as for himself. 


About the Author

Galina is the founder of ParentUp.  Her mission is to help parents to prepare and become great in the most important job of their life — being a parent. Galina is a wife, mother of two, and a certified PCC ICF coach.  galina@myparentup.com  www.myparentup.com

The views expressed in the articles in this magazine are not necessarily those of BAMBI committee members and we assume no responsibility for them or their effects.

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