Learn about the four essential steps in children’s gratitude practice in this article by best-selling children’s psychology and mindfulness author.

Young children, in particular, need our help understanding and developing gratitude so that we can instill gratitude in our children that is more than a mechanical “thank you.”

By being conscious about when to prompt them, and encouraging reflection on why something was done for them is so important.

When this moment occurs naturally, it results not only in understanding from our children, but also in a lovely warmth that flows both ways between giver and recipient, leading us all to more meaningful expressions of gratitude.

Have you ever encouraged your child to express their appreciation when they receive a gift or someone does something nice for them?

Have you noticed how it sometimes works and you can see the child’s gratitude expressed? And how their smile brightens the giver’s day as well.

However, sometimes when we prompt our children to do this, the child may feel embarrassed, for forgetting to do something we want them to do, or even anger at pointing it out to everyone.

I’ve done this soo many times it’s almost funny. Almost :-)

Instead of feeling and relaying the expansive positive emotion of gratitude that we want our children to feel, they feel bad. And learning to associate a negative emotion with this act is not something we want to do.

It is essential that we provide space for children to consider, feel, and discuss why they are thankful and how they can express their gratitude in ways other than words.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t encourage children to express gratitude, but it takes a little more effort, especially with younger children, to get there. I’ll explain exactly how we can accomplish this next…

Gratitude is more complex for children, and I wish I had known this when my son was younger.

The science of how children experience gratitude

According to researchers who participated in the Raising Grateful Children project at UNC Chapel Hill, gratitude is made up of four parts.

The four components of gratitude as an experience are as follows:

• The first level is how we NOTICE the things in our lives for which we are grateful for.
• The second level is how we THINK about those things.
• The third level is how we FEEL about what we’ve been given.
• Level four is what we DO to express our gratitude in return.

So, before we can express our gratitude, we must first notice, perhaps think about, and feel the positive emotion that gratitude is.

Children who are younger may only be able to experience gratitude in one or two ways. As they get older and their cognitive abilities improve, they are more likely to engage with all four parts.

In essence, we want to help children notice what they are grateful for, think about what they have and why they have it, notice how they feel about it, and then do something to express their gratitude.

Here’s an example of how younger children may experience gratitude:

In practice, younger children experience gratitude in a more straightforward manner than older children.

While a toddler may simply be delighted when her brother brings her cookies, an older child may recognize his brother’s thoughtfulness in remembering her favorite type of cookie and recognize that he brought her cookies to express his love. As a result, as she learns more about it, her appreciation grows. The toddler may say thank you as a result of prompting or habit. The older child may express gratitude because he or she is truly grateful.

The 4 essential steps for practicing gratitude with children

Here are some simple ways for you to help younger children understand and experience gratitude fully by applying each of the four parts:

Level one: Notice.

Make a point of noticing happy or beautiful moments. Declare these aloud and model the behavior you want your children to exhibit. When they see you express your gratitude on a daily basis, it has a powerful effect on them.

I still remember how wonderful it was when my two-year-old son began to thank me for groceries, telling me how much he appreciates me bringing him watermelon from the store. It was so sweet! Yes, both the melon and my son being so kind!

Level two: Think.

When your child receives a gift, ask them questions like, “Why do you think you received this gift?”, “Did this person have to give it to you?”, “Do you think you earned the gift because of something you did yourself?”, and “Do you think you owe the giver something in return?”

Level three: Feel.

Begin a conversation about how gratitude feels. These questions will help you connect your positive emotions to the things you receive.

“Does receiving this gift make you happy?”

“What does that feel like inside?”

“Where in your body do you feel gratitude?”

“What about the gift makes you happy?”

“Do you think you’ll be able to tell when someone else is grateful?”

Level four: Do.

Encourage activities such as writing thank-you notes, saying thank you, and volunteering to assist others. Acting on gratitude can help you connect your experiences with your actions in the world by expressing gratitude or paying it forward.

“Is there a way you want to show how you feel about this gift?”

“Does the way you feel about this gift make you want to share your feelings with others by giving them something?”

By the way …

My new gratitude book series integrates these insights and makes it simple to practice gratitude in a fun and age-appropriate way that benefits both younger and older children.

Here’s how I’ve applied the four steps with my son:

Here’s something I recently did with my son. Even though he’s already nine, I thought he’d benefit from going through the four steps.

Ha! I took advantage of his birthday.

To put the four steps into action, I decided to help my son appreciate those who gave him birthday gifts. He thanked everyone on his birthday, but to help it sink in, we talked about each gift and what the giver might have thought and felt when choosing the gift for him.

It’s so easy for a child to get caught up in the excitement of a gift and forget about the giver. You can, however, consider the effort of the giver and be thankful for the person and the kind act. This “thinking part” is often what elicits the emotion of gratitude. Without it it’s easy to miss the emotion of gratitude.

So, we talked about how it felt to think about the giver and whether my son felt moved to express his gratitude to the giver. He did.

So for a wonderful 1000-piece puzzle he received, we took a picture of the completed puzzle and sent it to the giver, explaining how much we appreciated the idea and how much fun we had putting it together. This gratitude experience was a lot of fun for us and I bet my son remembers how good it felt to express his gratitude!

Okay, I need to answer one more tough question:

What can we say to kids when they forget to say “thank you?”

Good question.

To assist children in saying “thank you,” ask them how they feel after receiving a gift from the giver.

“Does receiving this gift make you happy?”

“How does it make you feel about the person who gave it to you?”

“Is there a way you want to show how you feel about this gift?”

These simple prompts may help them notice, think about, and feel the emotion of gratitude, prompting them to say thank you in a genuine manner :-)

I’ll give it a shot the next time I want to remind my son to say thank you :-)

If you want to make gratitude a fun and lasting part of your children’s lives…

… you can take advantage of my new book series. My new books provide the most straightforward and engaging way to teach, learn, and practice gratitude with children. And the book series takes the four steps into account, too.

Consider signing up for my upcoming fun Gratitude Books for Kids, which can be used at home, in kindergarten, and in classrooms.

Simply click here to sign up for a chance to get the books for free(!)

The first book in the series is available in all Amazon stores globally and has gotten great reviews!

Wishing you many grateful moments!

Chris Bergstrom – Chief Mindfulness Ninja @ Blissful Kids

Chris Bergstrom is a bestselling mindfulness author, a leader in the field of mindfulness, and the founder of BlissfulKids.com, a community of parents, educators, and therapists dedicated to children’s mindfulness and psychology, with over 15 years of experience facilitating meditation and psychological interventions to people of all ages.

Chris is a certified mindfulness facilitator, trained to teach mindfulness to students in K-12, and has received psychology and mindfulness training from UPenn, UCLA, UNC, Mindful Schools, and Mindfulness Without Borders.