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Teaching Kids Gratitude


“A tough talk in tough times” splashed across the front page of our city’s morning paper not long ago.  But it was the huge accompanying photo that delivered the real emotional punch. Kneeling in the aisle of a toy store, a mother aimed guilty and beseeching eyes upward, toward her young son, her expression saying, “I am so sorry, but we can’t afford it.”

It’s sadly familiar during these recession years: the pangs of gloom and guilt we experience as parents, especially with the approach of Christmas.

But this uptick in parental guilt hits those hardest who embrace the nation’s premier child-rearing creed: I just want my kids to be happy. 

It’s a philosophy I’ve been writing and speaking about for several years, struggling to convince loving moms and dads that their youngsters’ true happiness will never result from the accumulation of material things. Each time I think I’ve found the perfect words to convey my message, the marketplace elbows me aside with the constant message to buy, buy, buy.

What we so easily forget is that one of the key elements of true happiness is a sense of gratitude. It’s one of the eight elements that research has revealed to be part of the lives of truly happy people. But how do we help our children develop a sense of gratitude? 

Research shows that children who grow up receiving a never-ending stream of stuff are less grateful for what they have. In other words, less is more. While fewer packages under the Christmas tree might trigger momentary disappointment, there’s a very real likelihood that greater appreciation and thankfulness for what they have will be the long-term takeaway.

Some tips for promoting gratitude in your children’s lives:

  • Model gratitude for your kids by commenting frequently on the blessings in your own life.
  • Create a mealtime ritual where each family member names one or two things that went well that day. Teaching children to focus on what’s positive is one way to encourage an attitude of appreciation. Kids as young as three or four can be taught to participate in this ritual.
  • Gently denying your kids some of what they ask for is more likely to foster gratitude than giving them so much that they come to expect that life’s bounty is limitless.
  • Gratitude can develop when children engage in acts of loving kindness, like donating toys they no longer play with or clothing they no longer wear. It’s an action that calls their attention to the ways they are blessed and fortunate. (Be sure they themselves carry the giveaway items into the homeless shelter or the hospital’s pediatric ward.)

May this holiday season be a time that your children receive from you not just the stuff they see in stores, but the gratitude-building experiences that support a lifetime of authentic happiness. 

Got any tips of your own for raising grateful children? 


Psychologist Aaron Cooper, Ph.D. is on staff at The Family Institute at Northwestern University (Chicago and Evanston, Il). He is the author of I Just Want My Kids To Be Happy: Why You Shouldn’t Say It, Why You Shouldn’t Think It, What You Should Embrace Instead (Late August Press, 2008). Read more about raising authentically happy children at