When Candice Falby and her six-year-old daughter were walking home from school together one day, her daughter asked why there was always a man sitting on the street. Taking the opportunity to explain what it means to be homeless, Falby was amazed at what came next. When they stopped at a bakery, her daughter asked if they could buy something for the man to eat. Once inside, Falby clarified it would be easier to choose an item that wouldn’t require reheating or utensils, as he likely didn’t have these items. “She became emotional and grateful for the simple things we do have, which we all sometimes take for granted,” says Falby.
It’s possible for young kids to be taught to understand gratitude. Researchers have found that by age five, most kids have developed a preliminary grasp of it. While practising gratitude is a process that takes time, it’s worth instilling when kids are young. “When a child is able to appreciate the positives in their life, it can improve their mental and physical health, resiliency and academic outcomes, and can even help them create stronger social connections,” says Cristina Magriñá, a clinical psychological associate at Kindercare Pediatrics and Springboard Clinic in Toronto.
Teaching gratitude might seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are four simple ways to integrate this practice into your life.
The first step in teaching gratitude is modelling the behaviours yourself, says Magriñá. To do this, designate a specific time each day—like at dinner or on the drive home from school—to discuss things you’re grateful for. For example, say something like, “It’s such a sunny day today. I’m so grateful for that,” and then ask your kid what they’re grateful for.
Sharing is the simplest gratitude-building activity and yet one of the most effective. Jessie Bawden, a mom of two girls under five, likes to take advantage of holidays such as Halloween and Easter to teach her kids how to share. She gets them to save a few favourite treats from their hauls and send the rest with Mom and Dad to share with co-workers. “I have been encouraging them to think about children who might not have the abundance we do and to be generous,” says Bawden. Donating outgrown clothing, books and toys is another great way to encourage sharing. When Bawden and her family does this, she’s often surprised when her kids donate a few of their favourite items. Some children have a harder time letting go of toys they’ve formed a connection with, so it’s important to empathize with your child and compromise—have them choose just one or two toys to give away, which will make them feel like they have control of the situation.
Another easy way to get kids thinking about the positives in their lives is by keeping a gratitude jar and having them add notes to it every night before bed. If your kid would rather draw, they can start an art journal, in which they can illustrate what they feel grateful for. Magriñá recommends reading through the notes or reviewing the art once a week, as feelings of gratitude are best absorbed upon reflection.
Giving your kids age-appropriate chores can foster gratitude in two ways. First, they flex their empathy muscle by understanding that these chores, which caregivers regularly do for them, often take a lot of work. This ability to empathize with someone’s effort puts them in a better position to experience genuine feelings of gratitude, says Magriñá. Second, your kid will likely feel proud of their actions after receiving favourable feedback—thanking them can reinforce this positive behaviour. Plus, it increases the likelihood that their future “thank yous” will come unprompted.