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How to Help Kids Cultivate Gratitude Year Round

Written by Jennifer Cohen Harper

Photography by Christine Platt PHOTOGRAPHED BY ERIKA LAYNE 

We all want our kids to be grateful for what they have, and show appreciation towards those who support them. At holiday time there is a lot of focus on gratitude (and saying thank you for presents!). But true appreciation—for the world around them, for others, and for themselves—is something that must be nurtured year round if we want our children to experience the many benefits of gratitude. And if we want their expressions of thanks to be spontaneous and authentic.

Practicing gratitude regularly helps us build a brain primed to see the positive. In an effort to protect us, the human brain has a strong negativity bias. It helps us survive, but not thrive. Gratitude counters that bias so we can enjoy life to the fullest. Here are some thoughts to consider, and practices to explore, on your family’s journey.

Cultivating gratitude in kids starts with modeling from their most important grown-ups. When we pause and appreciate the good around us (explicitly exploring what we feel, think, and sense in our body) we show our children that appreciation is important and worth taking the time for. It’s not just about saying “thank you”! It’s things like “This sunset is beautiful. I’m so glad I have eyes to see it with, and you to share it with. Let’s sit down and watch. What colors can you see?”

Forced thank you’s can backfire. Feeling gratitude and saying thank you aren’t the same. Pressure to say specific words can cause anxiety, and lead to resistance and resentment (which kills gratitude!). One way to help our kids when we are in what I call a “thank you stand off” (you’re waiting for your kid to say thank you and it’s not happening) is to show gratitude yourself. Saying something like “Thank you so much for thinking of Sam. I really appreciate it” models a positive response in an authentic way, without shaming your child. Then you can chat about it at home and even practice a bit for next time. Talk with your child about what they were feeling. Often it’s hard for kids to say thank you in the moment if they feel like all eyes are on them. Taking some space and calling later or writing a thank you note are wonderful options to express appreciation with less pressure.

Family rituals and engaging activities can make gratitude a habit. We can help kids develop an attitude of gratitude through regular rituals and activities that build mental habits. If the whole family participates it will also lead to increased feelings of connection with each other. Some examples include:

-Practicing a one word gratitude circle at meals or another time that works for your family.

-Naming aspects of our own body, mind, and heart that supported us that day at bedtime.

-Keeping a gratitude journal (these can be individual, but you can also create a family journal that everyone can contribute to).

-Writing a thank you note once a week for a kindness someone showed you.

-When fun or fulfilling things happen, make a habit of “taking in the good” by remembering and talking about the sensory and emotional experience of the positive situation.

-Creating gratitude web art projects for things children enjoy or appreciate. A gratitude web or ice cream, for example, may have ice cream in the middle, and then around it would be the grown up who worked to buy it, the people at the shop or store who sold it to us, the person who made it, the farmer who milked the cow, the cow itself, etc.

Showing appreciation for our kids makes it easier for them to appreciate others. Letting our kids know we are grateful for them (in specific ways that validate who they are) gives them an embodied experience of what it feels like to be appreciated. It builds up their sense of self, and strengthens your relationship while supporting their capacity to feel gratitude. When we feel appreciated, it’s much easier to appreciate others and the world around us!

Jennifer Cohen Harper is an educator, author, mother, and founder of Little Flower Yoga + Mindfulness in NYC. 

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