The Ultimate Guide to Children’s Gratitude Practice. Part 1:
Eight remarkable reasons why you should practice gratitude with your children
I’ve practiced gratitude with my son for eight years (!) and I wrote a new children’s gratitude book series to help grown-ups and kids practice gratitude effortlessly in a fun and engaging way.
Why did I bother doing all of that?
And why am I such an advocate for gratitude practice?
The short answer is: because of the gratitude octopus effect.
What is the gratitude octopus effect you might ask. Good question!
I began gratitude practice with my son when he was only 6 months old because I knew I had an opportunity to teach him something extraordinary.
I knew the science behind gratitude and that I could help develop his worldview to be more optimistic, assist him in building resilience, and provide him with tangible tools to feel better and be happier … for the rest of his life!
The benefits of gratitude seemed so promising that I made it my mission to give my son this gift.
And honestly, it’s been simple to sustain this practice, for almost nine years now, as I’ve always enjoyed practicing gratitude with my son.
I enjoy it because it allows us to bond, feel good about our lives, and learn about each other. Every time we practice I get to feel good inside and I know my son feels good too. It warms our hearts and makes us more cheerful.
Naturally, when my son was just 6 months old, he could only marvel at what daddy was doing and probably didn’t understand what I was saying when I told him all about the good things I was grateful for, but the mood was contagious, and I believe he mirrored those warm feelings I experienced.
But then, when my son was two, something completely unexpected happened.
To my great surprise…
At the age of two, my son learned to give back and help make me feel better!
He had noticed how good we felt when we practiced gratitude, and when he noticed I was feeling down, he started to encourage me with gratitude prompts.
I didn’t teach him to do that because I don’t believe it’s a child’s responsibility to help parents regulate; it just happened!
Even at the age of eight, he still requests that we practice gratitude before going to bed!
Because it makes him happy, we get to connect and share positive emotions, and it also makes it easier for us to fall asleep!
We’ve figured out a few tricks over the years on how to make practice fun and fresh, that you can try out with my soon to be published gratitude books for kids.
Hint: it’s important for kids to keep practice light and varied.
Now that my son is almost nine …
As a true science nerd, I assessed my son’s psychological gratitude aptitude and discovered that, along with optimism, it is one of his top 5 signature strengths, according to the Virtues In Action signature strengths inventory test.
Can you imagine how happy I was when I discovered that gratitude is one of the main character strengths that contribute to happiness?
In fact, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson, discovered that gratitude has the strongest relationship to life satisfaction in a study of parents’ descriptions of their children’s strengths in 2006.
The best part about gratitude is that it is a skill, which means you can improve your ability to feel good and be optimistic about life—even when life throws you lemons.
Gratitude practice can be started at any age. Seriously, it’s never too late to start—even we adults can change our mindset through gratitude practice.
I know that gratitude practice has balanced my world view and changed my mind for the better and it can change yours too.
Gratitude is like a muscle; the more you practice it, the stronger your ability to be grateful and feel gratitude grows.
Now, I’ll explain the amazing science-informed gratitude octopus effect :-D
The Gratitude Octopus Effect
I love gratitude practice because it is a very smart and sneaky way to teach children a multitude of virtues without them even realizing it. You essentially perform one simple practice and reap a slew of unexpected benefits.
The octopus with its arms represents the numerous unexpected effects of gratitude in this rather silly yet hopefully memorable metaphor.
Gratitude practice can help children grow optimism, kindness and empathy, and develop self-regulation skills … and resilience!
Those are only the gratitude octopus’s first four arms!
Consider how one simple exercise can accomplish all of that!
How is that even conceivable?
I’ll go over the eight incredible science-based benefits and why you’re likely to benefit from them…
But first, here’s the gratitude octopus.
Yes, I am aware that the gratitude octopus appears to have only six arms. I apologize for not being able to find a better image. I just thought it was so adorable that I had to keep it.
The Eight Remarkable Benefits of Gratitude Practice
1. Gratitude practice builds optimism.
We know that a positive outlook is important for success in the classroom and in life. Optimism is beneficial for people of all ages, but it is especially important for children.
Kids who are optimistic tend to have better physical health, experience less anxiety, perform better academically, and recover more quickly from setbacks than their pessimistic peers.
Grateful children tend to be happier, more optimistic, and have better social support (Froh & Emmons, 2008) and have better grades (Froh, 2011).
But why does gratitude practice develop optimism?
What gratitude practice consistently does is balance our world view.
Our minds tend to evaluate how we are doing and tend to focus on all the things that go wrong. It’s perfectly normal and everyone has this built-in bias (even children).
There’s even a name for it in psychology, it’s called the “negativity bias.”
Similarly, neuroscientists have discovered a “default mode network” (DMN) in our brains that tracks unpleasant experiences (Raichle, 2015).
The DMN is constantly critiquing who we are and how we are doing.
Sadly, the more we spend time consciously concentrating on these stressful, pessimistic facets, the more our brain will subconsciously emphasize these experiences… on autopilot.
This is called a negative feedback loop and we all have it.
The good news is that practicing gratitude helps us balance the amount of negative and positive that we focus on and wires our brains to look for the good and balance the way we look at life—that’s right, on autopilot.
Gratitude practice helps you to look for the good and opportunities in your life, not just for obstacles and mistakes.
Imagine if you could assist children in doing just that!
You certainly can :-)
I believe practice is particularly effective in early childhood, because children’s brains are developing, constructing, and pruning connections.
A gratitude practice can change your perspective and change your perception of the world.
We are more likely to see the glass as half full rather than half empty when we are grateful.
We become more optimistic as we choose and train to see the world through the lens of abundance rather than scarcity. This shift in thinking has the potential to have a significant impact on our lives.
2. Gratitude fosters kindness and empathy.
Gratitude practice helps children recognize all of the good things that happen to them, including how others help and care for them. These small gifts of kindness may go unnoticed, but gratitude practice shines a light on them, motivating children to return the kindness.
I recommend that you prompt them to do just that.
When you encourage children to return the kindness, they will have firsthand experience of how it feels to be the recipient of gratitude.
And being thanked feels great!
This experience will inspire children to continue doing acts of kindness. It will also teach children to think about others and their emotions.
Grateful children tend to give more social support to others (Froh & Emmons, 2008).
Kindness breeds kindness. When we express our gratitude to others, they are more likely to be kind to us and even others.
Kindness is all around us if we allow ourselves to notice and appreciate it.
Moreover, gratitude has been shown to increase empathy and reduce aggression (Lambert, 2011 & Lasota 2020).
According to Nathan DeWall, professor of psychology at the UK College of Arts & Sciences, grateful people are not only kinder. They are also less aggressive.
“If you practice gratitude, you are more likely to be empathetic towards other people,” says professor DeWall.
3. Gratitude practice develops self-regulation skills, happiness and calm.
At its core gratitude practice is a practice of self-regulation. Each time you practice gratitude you self-generate a positive state within yourself, a positive emotion called gratitude that you may feel inside your body. The more you practice, the easier it is to recognize this calming feel-good emotion.
It’s no surprise that studies have shown that gratitude practice makes you happier. Studies show that counting your blessings promotes well-being, particularly a positive mood (Emmons 2003, Watkins et al., 2003, Wood et al., 2010) .
The practice of gratitude shows children in a very real and tangible way how they can change the way they feel just by thinking differently for a short while.
It is tremendously empowering to realize that we as humans have the ability to change our moods and develop a more positive mindset, especially for children who are so often unaware of this ability.
I was feeling down yesterday when I was supposed to read to my son because of an acute allergy attack. I just wanted to curl up in bed.
Instead, we did 5 minutes of gratitude practice with the help of our new gratitude books, and I felt really good afterwards. The allergy or the symptoms did not go away magically, but my mood and mindset improved a lot.
So, gratitude is an excellent way to demonstrate to children how our thoughts influence how we feel.
And that we do, in fact, have the ability to balance our lives with more positive feelings; simply by thinking about the good more often.
I’ve been experimenting with this on the schoolyard for the past year. Meeting up with more or less unhappy and tired children in the morning, asking them about the positive aspects of their lives, and watching their faces light up with smiles.
It can be like magic at times!
Now, we can’t have a three armed octopus can we?
Let’s count the remaining arms of the gratitude octopus.
The remaining arms of the gratitude octopus include …
social emotional skills,
and… wait for it…
building a better world!
That is correct. I’ll go over each of these five incredible science-based benefits in greater detail.
4. Gratitude increases resilience.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and to grow from challenges. When faced with difficulties or hardship, grateful people are more likely to see the glass as half full rather than half empty.
They are better able to cope with stress and setbacks because they maintain an optimistic outlook and have better social support.
Additionally, gratitude has been linked with lower levels of anxiety and depression, which can also lead to increased resilience.
Grateful kids have been shown to be less envious, depressed, and materialistic than their less grateful counterparts (Froh, 2011).
A study with an emphasis on education found that encouraging students to deliberately practice gratitude toward learning can increase their capacity for concentration in the classroom and help them to remain resilient in the face of learning challenges (Wilson, 2016).
Here’s what leading expert on the science of gratitude, Robert Emmons, has to say:
“Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret, and depression, which can destroy our happiness,” – Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis
5. Gratitude practice supports social emotional skills.
Five foundational social-emotional competencies have been identified by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).
Responsible decision making
According to the research at Greater Good Science Center at Berkley University of California, gratitude supports each competency in the following ways:
Students develop social awareness by reflecting on the intentions and efforts of those for whom they are grateful.
When students express gratitude, they build and maintain healthy relationships with others.
Relationships are strengthened even more when students plan and carry out acts of kindness for others.
Students demonstrate responsible decision-making and improve the well-being of others and themselves by expressing gratitude.
This is fascinating, and it provides a nice segue into why gratitude practice is so beneficial to relationships.
6. Gratitude practice builds stronger relationships.
When we take the time to express our appreciation for others, they feel valued and appreciated in return.
Gratitude also leads us to be more generous and helpful toward others, which can create a spiral of goodwill.
This is something you can easily try out in your classroom and at home.
Grateful children tend to give more social support to others (Froh & Emmons, 2008).
When students feel connected to their peers and teachers, they’re more likely to engage in learning and experience academic and social success.
People who express gratitude regularly report stronger relationships and increased social support.
Gratitude strengthens bonds between romantic partners, friends, and family members. Showing appreciation for others not only benefits them, but it also benefits you!
Additionally, research has shown that people who practice gratitude are more likely to experience less conflict in their relationships.
Overall, expressing gratitude is a great way to strengthen social bonds and foster positive interactions with others. These social bonds will help you deal with adversity, which is why it is critical to form strong relationships.
In fact, research has shown that strong relationships are one of the best predictors of happiness. This is likely because our relationships provide us with important social and emotional support.
So, if you want to be happier, focus on strengthening the relationships in your life. The easiest way to get started is to … express your gratitude.
7. Gratitude practice improves wellbeing.
Grateful people tend to be healthier both physically and emotionally.
One study found that people who kept a weekly gratitude journal reported fewer physical symptoms of illness, exercised more regularly, and made more progress toward personal goals than those who did not keep a gratitude journal (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
Additionally, grateful people tend to have lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which can lead to improved sleep quality, lower blood pressure, and a reduced risk of heart disease.
Expressing gratitude has even been shown to boost immunity! In fact, UC Davis Medical Center claims that gratitude is good medicine.
Here are just a few health benefits listed by UC Davis Medical Center:
Keeping a gratitude diary for two weeks produced sustained reductions in perceived stress (28 percent) and depression (16 percent) in health-care practitioners.
Gratitude is related to 23 percent lower levels of stress hormones (cortisol).
Two gratitude activities (counting blessings and gratitude letter writing) reduced the risk of depression in at-risk patients by 41 percent over a six month period.
Dietary fat intake is reduced by as much as 25 percent when people are keeping a gratitude journal.
A daily gratitude practice can decelerate the effects of neurodegeneration (as measured by a 9 percent increase in verbal fluency) that occurs with increasing age.
Writing a letter of gratitude reduced feelings of hopelessness in 88 percent of suicidal inpatients and increased levels of optimism in 94 percent of them.
8. Gratitude practice helps us build a better world.
Yes, I’m serious :-)
Gratitude is more than just a feeling! I see gratitude as an important part of building a better world.
By taking the time to express our gratitude, we can help create an atmosphere of positivity and kindness that can ripple outwards and touch the lives of others.
Here’s something that surprised me …
I read the gratitude prompt on the last page of our first gratitude book to my son …
He said something I didn’t expect an eight-year-old to say …
Here’s the prompt from the book …
“Can you come up with ways to show your gratitude to somebody?
Anton, my son, responded, “I can make myself feel good inside by thinking of things I’m grateful for and share that feeling with others.”
I thought that was lovely and so true <3
Studies have shown that gratitude can make us kinder and more helpful and when we express our gratitude to others, they will go on to be kinder to you and others.
Yes, gratitude, according to studies, makes you a better person.
I’m not making this up :-)
Scientists found that gratitude makes us more altruistic, moral, and ethical (McCullough 2001, McCullough 2008).
And we become more helpful and kinder to others (Bartlett 2006).
Gratitude makes others better people too because those we thank are more likely to become more ethical (McCullough 2001, McCullough 2008).
Grateful children tend to be happier and more optimistic. They also report more satisfaction with their schools, families, communities, friends, and themselves (Froh & Emmons, 2008).
Gratitude practice has the power to make you happier and more satisfied … and when you are happy your happiness is contagious.
Happiness spreads through social networks, according to a 20-year longitudinal study by Harvard University and the University of California.
They discovered that when one person becomes happy, friends, neighbors and spouses have a greater chance of becoming happy as well.
The best part is that the impact goes beyond the people we come into contact with.
When one person is happy, the social network effect can spread up to three degrees, affecting friends of friends (Fowler & Christakis 2008).
This means that if you make a child grateful and happy in the classroom, his or her happiness may spread to his or her parents, and from them to the grocery store cashier, and so on.
In fact …
A beautiful way of looking at gratitude practice is to do it as a service to others.
Imagine the impact your practice can have!
How about if you practice gratitude with a classroom of 20 kids?
What is the social network effect of twenty happy children? Imagine that :)
Okay … to sum it up …
Gratitude, a feel-good emotion, comes with numerous benefits, and we have a simple ready-made tool for self-generation.
It’s called … you guessed it … gratitude practice :-)
And there you have it … the full “gratitude octopus effect” :-)
Pretty amazing, right?
If you agree, then consider sharing this article to inspire others to feel and do better <3
Now you know why I’ve made it my mission to help my son (and everyone else) develop a grateful mindset.
Here’s one more really cool thing … if you’ve got one more minute …
A friend shared a unique take on gratitude.
She told me that gratitude is the exact feeling that we are always looking for.
We might want a new car, that dessert, or for someone to like us… but what we really want is the good emotion we expect to feel when we get that thing.
The good news is that gratitude practice allows you to jump directly to that good feeling you’re looking for. We don’t need a new car to be happy.
Everything we need to feel good and complete is right here, right now.
That’s a beautiful idea and I believe it’s true.
So, let’s commit to making gratitude a part of our daily lives—it just might be the change we need to see in our world today.
If you want to make gratitude a fun and lasting part of your children’s lives, my new books will provide the most straightforward and engaging way to teach, learn, and practice gratitude with children.
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 it for free.
I will be sharing tips and tricks to build a sustainable gratitude practice with kids in the next installment of this article series.
Until then …
* Thank you * for reading all the way.
I hope I was able to inspire you and share my excitement and joy with you :-)
Wishing you many grateful moments!
Here is a bonus summary of some of the essential research on children’s gratitude for my fellow science geeks.
Summary of Children’s Gratitude Research
According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of School Psychology, grateful children (ages eleven to thirteen) tend to be happier, more optimistic, and have better social support (Froh & Emmons, 2008). They also report more satisfaction with their schools, families, communities, friends, and themselves. Grateful children also tend to give more social support to others as well (Froh & Emmons, 2008).
According to a 2011 study published in Psychological Assessment, grateful teens (ages fourteen to nineteen) are more satisfied with their lives, use their strengths to improve their communities, are more engaged in their schoolwork and hobbies, and have better grades (Froh, 2011). They’ve also been shown to be less envious, depressed, and materialistic than their less grateful counterparts.
Another study with an emphasis on education found that encouraging students to deliberately practice gratitude toward learning can increase their capacity for concentration in the classroom and help them to remain resilient in the face of learning challenges (Wilson, 2016).
To sum it all up. Gratitude is pretty amazing!! And the best part is that it’s easy and fun to practice, too!
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.
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