Luckily, it is possible to teach gratitude. One of Froh’s studies found that early adolescents who simply “counted their blessings” in a journal every day for two weeks were more appreciative than those who didn’t, as well as more optimistic and more satisfied with their lives.
In a forthcoming study, he and his co-authors also found that schoolchildren who were exposed to a specific “gratitude curriculum” reported more appreciation and happiness than those who didn’t get the lessons, even up to five months later. They were also much more likely to act on their feelings, writing 80 percent more thank-you notes for a school event than the control group.
“Now we’re talking actual behavior,” says Froh, who notes that the research shows that such benefits are generally most pronounced in children who start out with a less sunny attitude.
Despite the obvious advantages, it can be challenging to raise grateful kids in today’s society, with so much media focus on money, fame, status and the latest-and-greatest of everything. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try, says clinical psychologist Eleanor Mackey of Children’s National Medical Center. “Generally speaking, it’s like anything else: It takes time and energy to raise grateful kids, but if you make it a priority, it is doable, and the payoff can be enormous” in terms of healthier, more balanced young people.
Some expert advice to help you along the way:
Walk the walk
Above all, parents need to be good role models when it comes to expressing appreciation, whether that means thanking strangers for holding the door or thanking your son or daughter for a chore done without being asked.
“Having the experience of being on the receiving end of gratitude can help children recognize that it’s a nice thing for people to feel like what they’ve done has been acknowledged,” says Mackey.
Accentuate the positive
Froh recommends helping kids to make a list of all the good things in their own lives to be thankful for. (This can be especially helpful for teenagers who often focus on stuff their friends have that they don’t.) “Just try to highlight, very gently, the good they already have going on in other areas of life, while not invalidating their desire for something,” he says. “Like, ‘Okay, fine, you may not have this designer purse, but look at the wonderful relationships you have with your friends and how well you’re doing at school, both of which are so much more important.”
Though ’tis the season, Froh suggests replacing mall trips with non-acquisitive events such as going to the park, playing sports or spending quality family time at home. “It’s important to orient kids towards the values and needs that matter, getting away from those that don’t,” he explains. “Filling them with a sense of all the awe and wonder in the world . . . helps them realize that there’s a lot more to be grateful for” than new cellphones or toys.
Help them help others
It’s almost never too early to introduce the idea that not everybody in the world has everything they need or want. Take small kids to drop off presents at a local hospital or animal rescue league; older ones can volunteer at organizations around the area, although simply lending a hand to an elderly neighbor who needs help shoveling snow or grocery shopping can be just as impactful, says Mackey. These activities can show “how good it feels to see someone happy because of something you’ve done for them.”
Take the long view
It doesn’t matter if your little one doesn’t mean that quick “thank you” for the ugly sweater from Aunt Mary. “Early on, it might have to be this rote ‘When someone does something kind, you say thank you,’ ” says Froh, who suggests explaining that you can appreciate the effort made even if the gift isn’t perfect. “Walking kids through those thoughts will increase the chances of them experiencing that genuine, real gratitude one day.”
All that said, there will still be times when kids falter. “Don’t expect a 2-year-old or even a 5-year-old and certainly a teenager to do it all the time, or to get it right away,” says Mackey. But, she said, “the more you just incorporate [gratitude] and have it be an important part of who your family is and how you think about life, the more it will trickle down, and kids will get it.” Which, as Froh’s research suggests, may have wide-ranging benefits as well.
Personally, I’m grateful to have the backing of science to support my obsessive prodding and prompting of good manners, and I hope that we all reap the many rewards of a little more thankfulness, this year and beyond.