How many of us can think back to our childhood days and remember our parents, grandparents and even early-years teachers urging us to say thank you when we were presented with a gift, a nice gesture or a helping hand?

I certainly remember that showing appreciation and being thankful was tremendously important for the grown-ups around me. With time, I understood that people felt good when I said thank you to them, but before empathy entered the picture, thankfulness felt like one of those things I had to do, one more rule to go by: Saying thank you was equivalent to being polite.

Politeness was and continues to be a highly valued quality among humans. One to make sure our children possess and carry with them. After all, if we stop to really be honest for a moment, we can agree that politeness speaks well of the child that practices it, while also singing hidden praises to the caregivers responsible for that child. We could agree that it is a social skill that opens doors. A win-win all around. But in this case, politesse is merely one small part of a much bigger stance: Gratitude.

And if we were conscious about the psychological weight of gratitude as general value, we would be less concerned with mere politeness. Harvesting gratitude would then become a must (something just as important as promoting mathematical dexterity, if not more).

In general terms, gratitude is associated with the capability of being thankful, but because gratitude has been the subject of psychological interest for many years, we now know that it is a little bit more complex than that.

Robert Emmons, a Professor of Psychology at the University of California, considered one of the leading scientific experts on gratitude, approaches it as a two-stage process:

According to Emmons, the first stage consists of the “acknowledgment of goodness in one's life”.

Gratefulness -therefore- begins, when someone stops to be aware of the fact that they have received something (whether it be recently or long ago).

The Second part of the process consists of the recognition that the “source (s) of this goodness lie, at least partially, outside the self”. It is then safe to say that Gratitude is directly related to humility: We are conscious of the fact that something or someone, provided us with something and that something contributed to our well-being. 

To me, it all sounds like a big gift. A magical process in which we can appreciate goodness in our own existence and contact with positive emotions along the way. But that isn´t all there is to it. Experiments in the gratitude realm have directly linked it to a more optimistic look on life, increased sense of connectedness to others, longer and better quality of sleep time and fewer reported physical symptoms such as pain. (From an interview to Mr. Robert Emmons published in the SharpBrains blog on 2007).

So how can we teach our children the attitude of gratitude, which holds and includes politeness but transcends it?

  • Model it. Behavioralist psychologist understood -throughout their investigations many years ago- that visually demonstrating a behavior so that it could be reproduced by the observer, was a key part of the learning experience. Is therefore safe to conclude that If you wish to cultivate gratefulness, you need to show a child what being grateful looks like. Imagine for example that you go for a walk at a park or in the woods, in the middle of autumn: It is a great opportunity to practice being grateful. You can model excitement about the fact that you get to see all the different shades of yellow, orange and red. You can open your eyes wide, and using an excited tone of voice go into the details of what you can see and are “amazed by”, ending it with a “it´s so cool or its so nice that we get to see this and be here together”.
  • Create a family gratitude ritual. Depending on how the family schedule runs, you can take a moment daily to say what each family member is thankful for (at the dinner table or perhaps after reading the bedtime story…) Depending on the child’s age you will need to use simpler words such as : “I’m happy that today…x”, for example. If schedules are complex and mom can be present at bedtime, for example, but dad can´t, creating a gratitude jar is an option. Assign each family member a color of paper. Throughout the week, when someone is grateful or happy about something, they can write it down and place their piece of paper inside the jar. During the weekend, the family can make it a habit to sit down with some refreshments and read the content of the jar.
  • Promote the overt expression of gratitude using thank you notes/post cards or letters. If you take into considerations Robert Emmons definition of gratitude, you will comprehend that gratitude is active and that it requires thought and intention. By encouraging our children to write thank you notes, we will be helping them to stop and think of the actions and/or gestures that someone directed at them and that were therefore, helpful, allowing them to experience positive emotions. They will also get a chance to see in return, how their words contribute to someone else’s´ emotions and day.
Rocío Fernández Cosme
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Rocío Fernández Cosme
Children, adolescents and adults
Languages: English and Spanish
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