8 Ways to Help Your Child Develop Gratitude and Thankfulness

Have you ever felt embarrassed because your child forgot to say "thank you"? This week, Dr. Nanika Coor answers a listener email and gives you 8 tips for helping your child develop gratitude.

Nanika Coor, Psy. D.
7-minute read
Episode #653
The Quick And Dirty

It's typical for a young child to be totally oblivious to the social expectation of "express gratitude," as they're still learning how social interaction works. But that doesn't mean you can't teach your child the importance of gratitude through your own actions. Help your child develop gratitude by showing authentic feelings of gratitude and appreciation in your day-to-day life.

A Project Parenthood listener recently sent me an email requesting some help. Here’s his email (edited for clarity):

Hi Dr. Coorthanks so much for the podcast, I’ve gotten so many good tips from your episodes that I thought I’d ask your advice on something.

I’m feeling really irritated after having spent a lot of time and energy pulling off a last-minuteand quite successful I might addoutdoor celebration of my child’s 5th birthday yesterday. 

She got a ton of gifts and cards from friends and family during the celebration and seemed to have a great time. There’s just one thing thoughI didn’t hear a single thank you from her all day! I was mortified as she opened gift after gift, just tossing them aside before demanding the next one!

I thought we were modeling being grateful. We don’t force her to say “thank you”, but we do say “thank you” to her all the time, and show our genuine appreciation for her when we feel it.  We certainly thanked the gift-givers while she was opening them, but she just didn’t catch on. I’m just not getting how we’re supposed to give and get her material things without her turning out to be completely spoiled.

Is this normal 5yo behavior? Is there something we should be doing or not doing that would encourage more gratitude?

Thanks for your help, and thanks again for all you do!

Well, first I want to say to this parent that it’s such a pleasure to know that the information I’m sharing here has been helpful for you. And I want to acknowledge this parent’s courage in reaching out for help and support. It’s one of the hardest things to do as a parent, even though it’s one of the most important things to do as a parent. It really does take a village to raise a child, and I feel honored to be a part of the proverbial village for all of you listeners!

If you are a listener who’d like my help applying a respectful parenting approach to a parent-child issue you’re having, send me an email at parenthood@quickanddirtytips.com or leave me a voicemail at (646) 926-3243) and let me know if it’s okay to play your message on the show.

Back to this parent’s conundrum.

Out in public—especially in a gift-giving situation—when your child isn’t adhering to societal norms of "manners" and "politeness" it can bring up a lot of shame. Shame, being a particularly vulnerable emotion to experience, can switch your nervous system into fight/flight/freeze survival mode.

With your survival-mode lenses on, everything starts to seem more dangerous. In a split second, you’re on high alert. You judge your child to be "rude" or worry that the gift-givers are making that judgment. Your heart races with anxiety as you watch all the other adults staring expectantly at your child waiting for at least a show of gratitude. It makes sense that you’d feel irritated in this situation!

As a parent you’re under a lot of internal and external pressure to control your child’s behavior for the benefit and comfort of other adults. That instinct might also be pretty ingrained if you grew up with that practice yourself. It’s typical for a 5-year-old to be totally oblivious to the social expectation of "expressing gratitude"—they’re still learning how social interaction works! It’ll be a few years yet before their developing brains start detecting that others even have social expectations.

Kids end up learning less from what parents teach and more from who parents actually are.

So in the meantime, how do you teach your child the importance of gratitude and appreciation for all of the things in their lives that they are privileged to have and experience?

Well as it turns out, kids really end up learning less from what parents teach and more from who parents actually are. So if you want your kids to eventually develop intrinsic, authentic, and genuine feelings of gratitude and express that to others, you’ll need to show them what that looks like. Fortunately, you can begin to build that sense of generosity and thankfulness right from the toddler years.

Here are 8 ways to help your child develop gratitude

1. Show gratitude for things in life that don’t cost money

As adults, we can probably come up with a long list of things to be grateful for, but kids don’t really know that gratitude is even a thing! Nature, hugs, people, and one’s health are some things you can let your children hear you expressing gratitude for. When you get a gift, talk about all the elements that went into that gift arriving in your possession. Someone cared about you, thought about you, used some of their resources like time, money, energy, and effort—all to bring this gift to you. You can talk about your gratitude for each of those elements as well as the gift itself.

2. Encourage critical thinking about why someone has given a gift

Help kids start to think critically about gift-giving and receiving by talking about the reasons someone might have given a gift. “Sally gave me this gift even though I didn’t do anything to earn it, and she doesn’t even need me to get her anything in return! She didn’t have to get me a gift at all, but she did!” Part of feeling grateful is knowing that you were given something that didn’t have to be given.

3. Talk about the positive feelings that go along with receiving gifts

When you notice someone’s delight in getting a gift, point out their happiness to your child. If you are the recipient of a gift, talk about where in your body you feel that happiness and what about the gift you feel the happiest about. Talk about people in your life (family, friends, mentors, etc.) who have influenced you and contributed to your life in meaningful and positive ways. Talk to your kids about who these people are, your relationship with them, and why you are so grateful to have them in your life.

4. Model reciprocity and paying it forward

Talk about what you want to do with your feelings of positivity and happiness after receiving a gift. Do you feel so happy that you want to express your gratitude by doing something in return for the gift-giver? Or are you so grateful that you want to give a similar gift to someone else? Discuss these things with your children and let them help you come up with ideas and help you carry them out. If you’re writing a thank you card, let kids write or draw on the card, and explain why you’re giving it.

Make giving to others a regular part of your conversations with your kids.

5. Talk about wants versus needs in your family

Be vocal about how the adults come to decisions about what people want and need in your home, so your kids have an idea about what you are and aren’t willing to buy. Another way to help kids understand the difference between wants and needs is to involve them in charitable giving. If you give your child an allowance, teach them to split it equally 3 ways: spend, save, and give to charity. Every few months, have your children help you choose an organization to support or a volunteering activity the whole family can take part in. Make giving to others a regular part of your conversations with your kids.

6. Practice acts of kindness

Let your kids see you being kind to others because you are grateful for all they do. That could be something as simple as having your youngest child help you make a cup of tea for their older sibling in their favorite mug because you really appreciate how they folded the laundry without being asked. Or perhaps as a family project, you can all write a thank you note to the family on the block who makes a haunted house every Halloween to tell them how much you all appreciate the fun they bring to the holiday.

7. Share what you’re grateful for

Each time your child hears the things others are grateful for, it encourages more gratitude in them too. Talk with kids about the things that you're grateful for. When something difficult happens in the course of a day, you can also talk about what you’re grateful for despite the challenges. You may not be able to go to the beach today because it’s raining, but the garden will get a lot of water and help your family’s favorite cucumbers grow!

Even something painful like the loss of a pet can be an opportunity to show children that they can be both sad and grateful at the same time—sad to have lost a good furry friend, and grateful to have had their companionship in your life. After they’ve had ample time to process a difficult experience, you can even ask your child, “What’s something good that could come out of something challenging like this?”

8. Make gratitude a family habit

Help gratitude become second nature by creating regular family rituals and traditions around it. Make a family gratitude book and have each family member contribute one thing every day. Or, at dinner time, go around the table and have each person name something they’re grateful for. Once a week, have your child help you write a note of appreciation for a specific reason to someone you know well or even someone from the community you don’t know at all.

Challenge yourself!

For the next 30 to 90 days, be conscious of the messages your kids are getting about acquiring material things from you, from the media they consume, and from those around them. Talk out loud about your own gratitude and help them think critically about gift-giving and receiving. Involve your kids in charitable giving and expressing gratitude to others as you build a culture of gratitude in your family. Let me know how it goes!

Up until the age of 7 or so, other people’s inner workings are not on a child’s radar very much. Small children are still developing the ability to understand how their displays of gratitude or disappointment may affect others. Until then, focus on showing your child through your own words and actions what it looks like to feel and express gratitude to others by prioritizing thankfulness in your own life.

When you authentically feel grateful for things in your life, say it out loud! Children are always watching and listening to see how their adults do life. Be the person you want your child to be and try to trust that who and how you are is enough. Modeling works—really! It might blow you away when your toddler one day says (parroting you): "Thanks so much, Mama. That makes me feel really good! Can I give you a hug?"

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Nanika Coor, Psy. D.

Dr. Nanika Coor is a New York-based clinical psychologist and respectful parenting therapist. She helps overwhelmed parents hear a kinder inner voice and experience more mutually-respectful interactions with their children. Find out more about her work at www.brooklynparenttherapy.com.

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Coor to answer on Project Parenthood? Leave her a message at (646) 926-3243 or send an email to parenthood@quickanddirtytips.com