An Age-By-Age Guide to Instilling Gratitude in Kids


Who doesn’t want kids who recognize all the good things in life and express gratitude for them? Unfortunately, our sweet baby angels aren’t born grateful, but according to developmental psychologist Dr. Aliza Pressman, you can help children develop gratitude at any age.

In her new book, The 5 Principles of Parenting: Your Essential Guide to Raising Good Humans, Pressman writes about the Resilience GAMES, an acronym for Gratitude, Autonomy, Motivation, Empathy, and Self-regulation.

Don’t feel bad if your kid is self-absorbed; Pressman says they are meant to be.

“No matter what we do to raise grateful children, it doesn’t mean they’re going to say ‘I appreciate you’ when we want them to,” she wrote.

How to instill gratitude at every age

Adults

This means you: Getting your gratitude game in shape is the first step to promoting gratitude in children. Pressman recommends a morning and evening gratitude check-in.

In the morning, say one of these phrases to yourself:

  • “I’ll say thank you to someone today.” 

  • “I’ll show appreciation to someone today.” 

  • “When someone helps me today, I’ll feel a sense of thankfulness.” 

  • “I’ll notice three people or things I feel lucky to have in my life today.” 

In the evenings, ask yourself: 

  • “Did I say thank you to someone today?” 

  • “Did I show appreciation to someone today?” 

  • “When someone helped me, did I feel a sense of thankfulness today?” 

  • “Did I notice three people or things I feel lucky to have in my life today?”

Infants

Set an example. Your tiny baby isn’t really going to understand gratitude, but it’s not too early to start modeling. Pressman recommends naming three things about your baby that delight you.

Toddlers

Take a gratitude walk. Narrate what you appreciate for your child: “I’m so glad this flower is blooming” or “the sunshine feels so nice today.” If your toddler shows that they are delighted by something, Pressman wrote, put words to the feeling for them: “You’re grateful for this fun puddle.”

Preschoolers

Play “rose, bud, thorn.” Try this activity at dinner time or another time when your family gathers most days.

“In the exercise, each family member shares one thing they’re grateful for that happened that day (that’s the rose), one thing they didn’t like so much (that’s the thorn), and one thing they’re looking forward to (that’s the bud),” Pressman wrote. “One of the parents I work with likes to add a feather—something that made them laugh. This practice can help children and adults hunt for the good stuff without denying that, sure, there are going to be thorns in life, too. We’re allowed to be grateful even as we feel the whole range of emotions that humans experience.”

Elementary school age

Create a family gratitude journal. Have each family member record something they are grateful for in the shared family journal one to three times a week. 

You can also set up an allowance jar for each child. If your kids get an allowance, have them divide their money to give, save, or spend.

“Giving bolsters the giver’s, as well as the receiver’s, sense of gratefulness,” Pressman wrote.

Adolescents

Give back with service. Continue the activities listed above to make gratitude a regular part of family interactions, but also encourage tweens and teens to choose a community service project to donate their time to.

How to react when kids seem ungrateful

As a caregiver to young children, you give, give, give them so much—opportunities, experiences, objects, food, shelter, affection, time, energy. At times it can be hard to not have your own meltdown when they shrug off your efforts or ask for even more.

Don’t worry: Pressman says it is not developmentally appropriate for kids to recognize every precious thing and express their gratitude for it. 

For example, tweens live in the moment and may not think about the effort that goes into an experience or the benefits they will receive in the future. To help them understand how you feel, say something like this: “Here is where I’m coming from: I planned this trip/party/day/meal. It wasn’t easy. This is very special to me. I get why you don’t value it the way I do, but I’m asking you to bring your attention back to where we are.”

“Instilling gratitude, like so much of parenting, is all about playing the long game,” Pressman wrote.

Expressing gratitude starts with saying “thank you,” even if children don’t quite get why adults appreciate the expression.

“Toddlers typically begin to say ‘thank you’ around age two, but those early verbal expressions are more about manners and the way kids learn to make the adults in their lives happy,” Pressman wrote. “There’s nothing wrong with good manners—I’m a big fan of good manners!—but that deeper sense of gratitude psychologists associate with everything from better health and happiness, to better grades and lower stress levels at college, seems to emerge when kids are around 7 years old. Gratitude remains a work in progress throughout childhood and adolescence.”

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