10/16/2014 01:25 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Gratitude Fuels Your Child's Heart (and Your Own)


One of the most important -- and often neglected -- messages that you want your children to get early and often is the power of gratitude. Consider a simple "thank you." Those two words offer a win-win for the sender and the receiver of the message. A surprising and robust finding in the growing body of research that has explored what leads to happiness is that gratitude increases our happiness. For example, when people express genuine, heartfelt gratitude to others, those senders say that they feel happier for several days. And how does the receiver of that gratitude feel? Darned good, of course, because they feel appreciated.

Yet, teaching children gratitude can feel like an impossible task these days. We live in a culture where a sense of entitlement is ubiquitous. There are daily media accounts of celebrities, professional athletes, CEOs, and politicians who believe that they deserve everything that they receive and react to their riches, status, and fame with smugness and disdain, rather than gratitude. Advertising aimed at children tells them that it is their right to have what they want, how they want it, when they want it, and not be asked for anything in return. And research suggests that we are moving farther away from, rather than closer to, gratitude in young people; narcissism has risen significantly among college students in the past three decades. And a 2006 study of 200 celebrity actors, musicians, and comedians found that they were significantly more narcissistic than the average person, with reality-TV stars scoring the highest on narcissism.

How many times in your children's lives have you done something for them and received no "thank you" in return? More times than you can count, in all likelihood. And how did you feel? Unappreciated? Perhaps a bit angry and resentful for your children not having acknowledged your efforts on their behalf? Less willing to help in the future? All very reasonable reactions to an absence of gratitude. And how many times, after you or someone else helps your children, have you asked them to say, "thank you"? I'm sure that if you had a dime for every time, you would be wealthy today. Though there is some evidence that gratitude, like other "pro-social" behaviors, is inborn, you wouldn't know it from the struggle that just about every parent has in getting their children to express gratitude.

The Power of Gratitude

It's easy to overlook gratitude because, for most people, its expressions are often knee-jerk reactions; most adults say "thank you" without even thinking about it. Perhaps because there isn't typically much thought behind gratitude, we take it for granted as both the sender and receiver. Yet, over the last decade, an expansive body of research has emerged demonstrating the extraordinary power that gratitude has on all aspects of our lives. For example, people who express gratitude have been found to be more happy, experience more positive emotions, have lower levels of depression and stress, and rate their relationships and lives as more fulfilling.

People who express gratitude are more accepting of themselves and others, say they have more purpose and control in their lives, and are able to deal with life transitions better. Grateful people also deal with life challenges better because they maintain a positive attitude, reach out for support from others, and focus on finding solutions rather than dwelling on the problems.

Social benefits accrued as well: People who are grateful are more empathic, able to take others' perspectives, and generous, and more likely to help or support others. They also have stronger bonds to others. Most relevant here, children who regularly expressed gratitude are more optimistic about their families and schools.

There is also an emerging body of literature that has found that gratitude isn't just psychological, but rather impacts us physiologically and neurologically. Gratitude appears to produce beneficial hormonal changes and boost the immune system. And these benefits aren't just a short-term effect. Ongoing practices in gratitude produce the repetition needed to wire the neural pathways that make it easier for children to override unhealthy thinking, emotions, and behaviors and experience positive physiology, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in the future.

In upcoming posts, I will explore ways in which you can help your children understand and embrace the power of gratitude in their lives.

This blog post is excerpted from my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You (The Experiment Publishing, 2011).