Gratitude through the Ages
by Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane
Nothing is more important in life than knowing how to build positive relationships with people and God. Having a thankful heart serves as the foundation. Maybe you’ve observed your toddler rant and rave, and you wonder how there can be a thankful heart inside that two-foot-tall tyrant. Are young children capable of showing gratitude and if so, at what age?
There’s not an arbitrary age when a switch flips and a child can comprehend and express gratitude. However, rather early on, around age two or three, you can begin to teach children the concept of sharing and saying thank you. There are many good habits you can teach kids very early on—things like saying thank you to a parent at mealtime or after receiving a gift. The sooner you start those expressions of gratitude, the more likely your child is going to connect to doing the kinds of things that build relationships.
Grateful kids realize that the whole world doesn’t revolve around their wants and needs. Freshly washed laundry, a hot meal, and a cleaned-up toy room don’t just happen automatically. A mom or dad has to work hard to make those things happen. Realizing that someone has gone out of their way to help doesn’t come naturally to a child, but they can learn it.
By age two or three, children can talk about being thankful for specific objects, people, pets, and experiences. A toddler can say, “Thank you for the doll” or “That was fun. Thanks!”
By age four, in addition to being thankful for material things like toys, they can express thanks for hugs, affirming words, and other caring acts.
By five or six, kids can write their own thank-you notes with some help from mom or dad. They can give a hug to a loved one, look them in the eye, and express their thanks. They can call a relative who lives far away to say thank you for a birthday gift.
By seven or eight, a child can keep a notebook where they write down a few things they are thankful for each day.
By nine, many children are mature enough to help with a service project with those who are less fortunate. Volunteering in a soup kitchen, for example, can serve as a real eye-opener for kids.
By their tween and teen years, your children can do just about anything you can to show and communicate gratitude to others. They can bake cookies for others, write thank-you letters to teachers and youth leaders, or participate in a short missions trip. When my (Gary’s) granddaughter was fourteen, she cooked an entire meal for her family to say “thank you” to her mom and dad for the work they do every day.
Numerous studies prove a variety of positive outcomes of gratitude in adults, including improved physical health, emotional and mental health, and protection from stress and depression. Not surprisingly, the same is true of teenagers. Early adolescents (ages eleven to thirteen) who were grateful reported more optimism, social support from family and peers, and satisfaction with school, family, community, friends, and self than their less grateful counterparts. Grateful late adolescents (ages fourteen to nineteen) reported greater life satisfaction, social integration, absorption in activities, and academic achievements, and less envy, depression, and materialism.7 Gratitude is also linked to lower levels of aggression. Kids who express thanks are more empathetic towards others, making them less prone to aggression and violent behaviors.8
You don’t have to wait until your children reach a certain age before teaching them about gratitude. All throughout their childhood, you can be modeling a thankful heart and training them how to express thanks in age appropriate ways. These skills will serve them for a lifetime.
Ten Screen-Free Ways to Cultivate a Thankful Heart in Your Child
- Scavenger Hunt—Equipped with paper and pen, go through your room and write down all the items you are thankful that you have.
- Family Tree—Have your child draw a family tree, complete with parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Talk together about positive things you enjoy about each person. Pray and thank God for your family.
- Fight Hunger—Volunteer at a food bank to help stock food in a warehouse, assemble bags of food, or distribute food. Talk about your experience over family dinner.
- Save Money for a Cause—Sponsor a child through a relief organization, buy a well for a needy family in the developing world, or send toys to a poor family at Christmas. You can keep a jar in a central location so everyone can contribute their loose change and bills. Be creative—maybe you can skip dessert for a week and put the money you save into the jar.
- Be a Good Neighbor—Bake cookies or brownies for your neighbors, just because. Attach a note of appreciation: “Thanks for being a great neighbor!” and have your children sign it. Deliver the cookies together and make sure your children see how the neighbors respond.
- Paper Chain—Have your children write what they are thankful for on strips of paper. Use the strips to make a gratitude chain and hang it up at home.
- Write a Treasured Note—Have your child think of someone important in her life: a teacher, coach, pastor, or relative. Have her complete this sentence in her note: “You have made a difference in my life because ____________________.”
- Keep a Gratitude Journal—Have your child write up to five things he is grateful for each day. At the end of the week, have your child read the list aloud to the family.
- Rice Again?—You can teach your children to appreciate the variety of foods they have by offering them only rice for one day. Don’t worry, it’s not going to hurt your child for one day, and it will be a memorable lesson on how many children of the world eat it every day.
- Play “Grateful Hot Potato”—Have your family sit in a circle. It doesn’t matter if you use a potato, ball, rolled up socks, or stuffed animal. The object of the game is to say something you are grateful for and then pass the hot potato to the next family member. If you can’t come up with anything new to say within five seconds, you’re out.
Excerpted from Screen Kids: 5 Skills Every Child Needs in a Tech-Driven World by Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane (©2020). Published by Northfield Publishing. Used by permission.
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