Recently, I’ve been going through dozens of medical research papers as part of a writing project. One study stood out to me for its simplicity and its powerful message – The Science of Gratitude by The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. According to the study – and many like it – gratitude rewires our brain and makes it more resilient to stress. Children who develop gratitude grow up to become more emotionally stable and socially integrated adults. They also tend to be less materialistic and report higher levels of satisfaction with life. Practising gratitude also reduces the likelihood of depression in youth and grown-ups, even alleviating depressive symptoms in those diagnosed with the illness. Other physical benefits include better sleep, less fatigue, lower levels of cellular inflammation which can lead to faster recovery from illness.
There are various factors that contribute to the development of dispositional gratitude, or gratitude as an attitude towards life. Culture and environment can influence thankfulness, as do specific experiences. One theory, though, states that humans are intrinsically wired to be grateful. This is good news for parents because it means children only need a little nudge to move further in the right direction.
It’s common practice to teach kids polite words like “thank you” and “please”, especially when they’re just learning to speak. We would prompt them with phrases such as, “What do you say?” or “How do you ask nicely?” Whilst these habits might get ingrained, I’ve discovered that practising gratitude goes much deeper than just using the right words. It’s more about cultivating the right attitude and mindset – one that acknowledges the positive over the negative, or seeing the good in spite of the not-so-good. We want to build dispositional gratitude in our children, instead of just emotional or mood-based gratitude. How do we do that? Here are some activities that can help develop dispositional gratitude.
I should note that the benefits of practising and building gratitude in your children accrue over time. Don’t expect to see results immediately; as with most things parenting, we’re running marathons, not sprints. The upside, though, is that the positive effects of gratitude practices will outlast the duration of the practice. In some experiments, respondents have demonstrated a more positive disposition even weeks after they’ve stopped gratitude journaling. As you continue to build these habits in your children, the benefits will stay with them into their adult years.
Any parent knows that consistency is important in building habits. Regular reminders or prompts will help children develop a thankful attitude, regardless of circumstance. A good way to check whether your child has started to develop dispositional gratitude is to see how they respond to setbacks. If they’re able to identify the silver lining in their dark cloud, then you’re on your way to raising a strong, resilient young adult. Take note that it’s not about changing your child’s circumstances – it’s about how they can shift their perspective on what’s happening.
Lastly, another powerful influence on your child’s behaviour is your own example. As parents, we ought to practice what we preach. Showing thankfulness and expressing gratitude daily reinforces this behaviour in our children. When children witness gratitude day in and day out, the attitude of thankfulness will become second nature to them. And guess what? You’ll reap the benefits of practising gratitude yourself – greater satisfaction in life, reduced stress, and overall improved well-being. That’s what I would call a win-win situation.