Research shows reminding kids to say ‘thank you’ doesn’t work as well as taking time to help them cultivate gratitude
Looking to foster a better attitude toward gratitude among your kids? While the instinct may be to remind kids to say, ‘thank you,’ psychological research suggests it’s better to help children develop gratefulness by encouraging them to notice kind acts, and modeling gratitude as adults.
Gratitude is more than just a pleasant sentiment. It can be a powerful tool for enhancing well-being. Decades of research have demonstrated the benefits of practicing gratitude, both for adults and children.
In a landmark 2003 study led by Robert Emmons, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, participants who were assigned to list things they were grateful for experienced greater happiness, joy, and enthusiasm than those who were only asked to write about how they were feeling each day. The findings inspired a spate of additional research. To date, numerous studies have found that having a grateful outlook, “counting one’s blessings,” and expressing gratitude to others can have positive effects on emotional health as well as on interpersonal and romantic
relationships. Grateful adolescents report higher life satisfaction and a greater motivation to improve themselves, according to a 2022 study in Emotion.
Expressing gratitude is even associated with a host of physical benefits. Studies have shown that feeling thankful can improve sleep, lower blood pressure, reduce depression, and even alter biomarkers of risk for cardiovascular disease.
Amid the hustle and bustle of the holidays, instilling gratitude in our kids can be a gift that keeps on giving. Here are six science-backed tips for parents to help cultivate gratefulness in their kids:
Research has shown feelings of gratitude involve brain regions that are important for social information processing and emotional regulation—areas of the brain that are still developing in young children. But even toddlers can understand gratitude on some level, noted neuroscientist Christina Karns, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. She says one of the best ways to help very young children better understand gratefulness is by simply talking to them about small moments of joy such as how lovely the day is or how delicious the food you’re eating might be.
“Just sharing the sensory aspects of feeling good is appropriate for a toddler or preschooler who doesn’t have the complex ability yet to evaluate the minds of other people or what their intentions are,” Karns said.
Making it a habit to ask kids about how they feel when they receive something special or why someone may have given them a gift can help when it comes to a child truly feeling and expressing gratitude, according to a 2019 study led by Andrea Hussong, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“It’s really about just walking them through that reflection piece—not talking for them or lecturing them about how grateful they should be, but just asking some really open-ended questions,” Hussong said.
This process can also help parents realize that their child may not even be aware that they just experienced or received something they should be grateful for, notes developmental psychologist Maryam Abdullah, PhD, parenting program director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Sometimes our kids are just so busy or focused on other things like wanting to go play outside with the neighbors that their level of awareness around them feeling they should be grateful for something is not even on their radar,” she said.
Grateful parents tend to raise grateful kids, according to a 2017 study in Applied Developmental Science. When a child demonstrates thoughtfulness, make a big deal out of it, Karns said.
“Say things like, ‘That hug makes me feel so good inside,’ or ‘Wow! You made that drawing for me? You really put a lot of thought into what I would like,’” she said. “Letting them be the recipients of your gratitude can help them cultivate their own.”
It’s also an important way to helps kids develop social and moral awareness, said Richard Weissbourd, EdD, a child and family psychologist and director of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project. The national effort aims to make moral and social development priorities in child-raising.
“When parents value other people and their contributions in a regular way, it is an important signal to kids that other people are important and their contributions are important, and when parents find gratification in expressing gratitude, it makes it more likely kids will have their own positive experiences around gratitude,” Weissbourd said.
The benefits of parents taking time to express their gratitude to others also goes beyond just helping their kids cultivate gratitude, according to a 2023 study in Emotion. Researchers found practicing gratefulness improves parents’ own well-being and leads to better family functioning.
“This is useful because parents may be maxed out on doing things for their children,” said study author John Coffey, PhD, a psychology professor at Arizona State University. “In our society, often parents prioritize their children over themselves or get advice to do something children-specific to keep the children happy and healthy, but our study shows it is also beneficial for families when parents prioritize their well-being. We call it a head fake—like a no-look pass where you look one way but throw another—such that parents are taking care of themselves but it’s also benefiting the family.”
Some parents may think they need to make gratitude a daily habit at the dinner table, asking their kids to share three things they’re grateful for every night or encouraging them to write in a gratitude journal. This may work great for some families, but it’s important that parents not beat themselves up if the practice isn’t getting much response from their kids, Hussong said.
In a similar vein, she recommends that rather than getting angry in the moment when a child or teen appears ungrateful, take the time to ask what’s going on with them.
“Without judgment and with actual wonder and curiosity, ask ‘What’s going on for you right now?’ Hussong said. “Often what’s happening is sometimes the kid is getting caught up in something else that’s really pressing for them in the moment. And they’re missing the thing that you’re paying attention to.”
Don’t overdo it
It’s important to find the right balance when it comes to encouraging your child to be grateful, said Milena Batanova, PhD, director of research and evaluation for the Making Care Common Project at Harvard. In a study led by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, participants were instructed to regularly think about things for which they were grateful. Those who expressed gratitude once a week—but not three times a week—reported greater well-being.
“In many ways if you’re talking to your kids about what they’re grateful for too often, it can water down the effects, or bore them,” Batanova said. “Then it can have a counter-productive effect on them and take all of the meaning out of it.”
No parent is going to cultivate gratitude right every day, Abdullah said. But if a kid wants to make a TikTok video to thank grandma for their birthday gift rather than writing a traditional thank you note, let them.
Making Caring Common offers different types of gratitude-instilling strategies for this exact reason, Batanova said. Children (and parents) might resonate differently with different approaches, whether it’s playing a scavenger-hunt type game to look for things one is grateful for, using gratitude conversation cards at the dinner table or while commuting, or expressing gratitude in fun ways, like making that TikTok video.
“We need to give parents permission to just see the different possibilities and pathways toward cultivating gratitude in their kids, and to recognize that this is an ongoing process for our children as well,” Abdullah said.
- Gratitude conversations online program, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Parenting strategies from Making Caring Common
- How to help kids develop gratitude
- How to develop gratitude through conversations
- How to help kids show gratitude
Parenting articles from Greater Good
- How to help gratitude grow in your kids
- The best ways for parents to respond to ingratitude
- How to foster little moments of gratitude with your kids
- If you practice gratitude, your children can benefit, too
Parenting practices from Greater Good in Action