How and Why to Teach Your Grandchildren About Gratitude
By Lisa Fields for Next Avenue
One of the best gifts you can give your grandchild isn’t something physical to wrap up and offer as a birthday present. Rather, you can help to instill a strong sense of gratitude in your grandchild with your words and actions, which can help the child see how much good is in his or her life.
“Gratitude is our positive connection to the past,” said Nansook Park, professor of psychology at Michigan State University, who studies the effects of gratitude on children. “It gives us the sense that there are good things around us, and those good things in our life are the result of contributions by others.”
Feelings of gratitude can alter a child’s perception of the world, his or her family and himself or herself. Research has shown that children who feel grateful are more satisfied with life, more compassionate, more likely to perform well academically, more likely to have close relationships with their family members and less likely to be susceptible to stress, depression and early sexual encounters with peers.
Children need to be taught about gratitude to glean its benefits; it’s a learned skill. But it’s easier to teach than you might think. Grandparents can help cultivate a strong sense of gratitude in grandchildren of all ages, from toddlers to teens. Here’s how:
Be a Role Model
From a young age, children observe adults to learn important life lessons. If you demonstrate that you feel grateful and express your gratitude consistently, your grandchildren are likely to follow suit.
“Research shows clearly that young people learn by observing, not by listening,” Park said. “Young people who grow up watching adults around them practicing gratitude in daily life are most likely to internalize those concepts and adopt that kind of practice.”
Grandchildren whose parents or grandparents don’t demonstrate gratitude are less likely to cultivate gratitude themselves, even if the adults in their lives tell them to.
“If you don’t model it yourself, it will have no impact,” said psychologist Eric Dlugokinski, professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma.
Going Beyond ‘Thank You’
From a young age, children are taught to say “thank you” for gifts or kindnesses. But saying the words reflexively doesn’t mean that they’re grateful.
“They are often doing that because they have been prompted and they know it’s a social convention,” said Katelyn Poelker, assistant professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Mich., who studies the effects of gratitude on children. “It’s maybe more of a ritual than, ‘Wow, I totally understand all the trouble this person went through to get this toy I really wanted.’”
You can help your grandchildren understand gratitude by teaching them why to say “thank you,” not just when.
“It’s important to explain the rationale behind those automatic thank yous,” Poelker said. “You can only feel gratitude when you understand what the other person had to do to make it a reality for you. A younger child can’t think it through the same way as an older child. Explain it: ‘Grandma called Mommy to see what you wanted, and then she drove all the way to the store and picked it out.’”
Uncovering Silver Linings
Naturally, you want to protect your grandchildren from disappointment. You can’t stop upsetting events from unfolding, but instilling them with a strong sense of gratitude can help.
“It’s part of life to win some and lose some,” Dlugokinski said. “It’s not whether you are defeated at something, it’s whether you bounce back. Resilience is the capacity to bounce back from losses.”
If your grandchild is accustomed to thinking about things that he or she is grateful for, it will be easier to find silver linings in upsetting situations and bounce back.
“Gratitude is encouraging young people to shift the focus away from what went wrong,” Poelker said. “It’s framing disappointments and losses in terms of what you still have. Even if you lose the soccer tournament, you still got to spend 16 weeks with the soccer team: The great friendships, the lessons learned and maybe next year, we’ll be better.”
Complimenting your grandchild is an excellent way to express gratitude in an accessible way.
“It’s good to recognize success,” Dlugokinski said. “It’s especially good to recognize effort. If somebody has tried as hard as they can and did not achieve, recognize that. They can come back and use that same effort and make it work next time.”
Don’t just tell your grandchild that you’re grateful for his or her actions; explain why.
“It doesn’t have to be a long conversation,” Poelker said. “Explain that actions have consequences. If you take the time to explain things on occasion, that’s where the power of those interactions really lie.”
Although teens may seem focused on themselves, they haven’t necessarily forgotten about gratitude.
“People often think that young people are entitled and ungrateful, but that is not always true,” Park said. “Adolescence is for young people to focus more on themselves and try to build a sense of identity. Thinking about how others contribute to their life is not exactly what they are interested in doing. This does not mean that they are not grateful.”
You may help teens embrace gratitude by pointing out sacrifices that others have made for them.
“Encourage them to see things from multiple vantage points,” Poelker said. “It sets them up to better appreciate all the kind things that have been done for them when you understand what it took for the other person to make that happen.”
Expressions of Gratitude
When your grandchild receives a gift, you can encourage him or her to write a thank-you card. If you start early on, card-writing can become a positive habit.
“If adults make it fun with young people and truly explain the meaning of activity, [writing thank-you notes] can be a part of family ritual,” Park said. “However, if adults demand or preach young people to do it as an obligation while they are not doing it, it is not only less effective but it creates resentment and resistance.”
Younger children can get into the habit by drawing thank-you pictures. Older children can dig deep within themselves.
“I would recommend that the note explain why the child is grateful, rather than, ‘Thanks for the gift,’” Poelker said. “You strengthen that bond, acknowledging something deeper than, ‘Hey, you got me something.’ It’s beneficial both for the benefactor and the beneficiary.”
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