TIME Parenting

Tips for Every Age: How to Raise Grateful Kids

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How to talk to your kids without sounding preachy

The weeks after the holidays can feel like a big let down. After all the expectation—and stress—of the season, both parents and kids may feel a sense of disappointment after all the gifts are opened and the treats are eaten.

But is it possible to flip that script? Can parents encourage kids to stop thinking “what have we got to look forward to now?” and start concentrating on everything they’ve just enjoyed?

We talked with Christine Carter, director of the Greater Good Science Center Parenting Program at UCBerkeley, and author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, to get her practical tips on unleashing the power of gratitude.

The list of the benefits of gratitude is so long “it’s almost ridiculous,” Carter says. “People who are consciously practicing gratitude sleep better, have more energy, and feel more connected to other people.” One study has even proven that kidney function improves when people practice gratitude. And the good news is that it’s contagious. “If I’m feeling strong positive emotion, and I’m sharing that with somebody,” Carter explains, “those emotions spread person to person” through the whole family.

So how can parents get the gratitude conversation started? These are her tips, for any age.

Elementary school kids may be too young to think in terms of classic gratitude, which requires remembering something from the past. But “they understand what a good thing is,” Carter says. “Don’t worry about the time frame. Just ask them to name three good things about their day.” And no matter how old or a young a child, don’t correct them when they express gratitude. “Let them be grateful for whatever they’re grateful for.”

Middle school kids have often learned to be grateful for material things, because they’ve been trained in the etiquette of writing thank you-notes. So it’s good for parents to model being grateful for intangibles, like health and family, or a beautiful day. And as kids mature, questions about what they’re grateful for become more complicated, Carter says. If a parent asks, “what are you grateful for?” a child may feel burdened by everything they owe their parents. So non-verbal expressions can be helpful at this age, Carter suggests, like art projects that focus on gratitude. And parents can also help kids to focus on what they’re grateful for beyond the family, by helping them express words of appreciation about other people around them, with questions like, “What do you enjoy about your friends? Or your teachers?”

High school students can begin to think of gratitude in a much larger context. And context, Carter says, is actually key to gratitude. Relative to many other cultures, many children in the U.S. “live in tremendous abundance,” she points out. And that creates what researchers call an abundance paradox. “We’re much more likely to feel disappointed or even resentful when we don’t get what we want,” Carter explains, “than grateful when we do.” How to cut this knot? Studies have shown that “gratitude only arises naturally without cultivation under conditions of scarcity,” Carter says. So high school kids who have been exposed to scarcity, by doing activities like serving at a homeless shelter, will far more grateful than those who don’t.

And it turns out, sad old truth that it may be, the best way for all of us to feel grateful may be to give, rather than to get.

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