As Thanksgiving approaches, we think about families gathering to share a festive meal, watch a football game and spend time with their family and friends. The holiday is also an opportunity to give thanks and count our many blessings. A common worry for parents is that today’s children are ungrateful. But don’t worry-researchers are starting to uncover how to foster gratitude in children.
Surprisingly, the study of gratitude is still in its infancy. Very few studies have been published, and even fewer have examined gratitude in children. This is partly because gratitude is thought to involve complex thinking and emotional processing that may not have yet developed for children younger than middle school age.
Do children gain anything from feeling gratitude? To investigate this question, Robert Emmons and his colleagues at UC Davis asked middle school students to fill out the same questionnaire three times over a six-month period. One questionnaire asked how grateful, thankful and appreciative they had felt toward other people over the previous weeks. Another asked about feelings of life satisfaction, such as “I look forward to going to school” and “I like myself.” A third questionnaire asked how well-integrated the adolescent was to his or her social environment, such as “I feel like a part of my community” and “I love to help those around me.”
The researchers found that feelings of general gratitude increased over the six-month period, and students saw an increase in their life satisfaction and their sense of integration with the community. The authors argued that these processes build on each other – feel gratitude today, want to help others the next – by generating “spirals of emotional positivity.”
In a related study by Phil Watkins of Simon Fraser University, elementary school children were asked to list five things they were grateful for or five things that were bothering them every day for two weeks. The results showed that writing about gratitude made the children more likely to say such things as “I am satisfied with my school and family life.” A similar study was done with high school students and found that those who practiced gratitude had higher GPAs, less depression and a more optimistic outlook for their academic future than the teens that hadn’t expressed gratitude.
Overall, while the science of gratitude is still largely uncharted territory in younger children, the findings with older children strongly suggest that reminding children to be grateful is a simple and effective tool that leads to many positive outcomes.
Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.