How to Cultivate Gratitude in Kids


We can give our children a lot – from material possessions, to our time and energy.

In return, we often desire or expect expressions of gratitude from them, but this doesn’t always happen.

It leads one to question how children come to understand what it means to be grateful and to feel it inside of them. Is it as simple as modelling gratitude ourselves or acting in a generous fashion towards others? Is it as simple as telling them the words to say when someone is generous towards them?

Words matter, and so do the feelings that fuel them. We can teach a child to say, ‘thank you’ and cue them to when they need to say it, but this doesn’t mean they feel gratitude. Words of appreciation that are said without caring are usually done for performance reasons. It may please the adults in their life, or fit into societal expectations, but it shouldn’t be confused with true gratitude in a child.

The problem is we can train a child to say the ‘right things’ but this usually falls apart when the ‘right people’ are not watching. A ‘thank you’ that is said without caring is like fake fruit, it looks good but doesn’t nourish anyone.

The first thing we need to realize is that gratitude is not something you can teach directly, rather it is something you can help a child express when they feel cared for by another person. We can start by orienting the child to their own feelings and to help them stop for a moment to consider how someone has cared for them.

Children under the age of 5 are often impulsive and move quickly through their emotions. They are routinely unaware of how their feelings drive behaviour. Helping a child land on one feeling at a time will help them recognize and feel the caring that is behind gestures. For example, my eldest used to bring her sister part of her treats that were shared on special occasions in school. She would run towards her sister with half-eaten cookies or cupcakes and when I asked her why she always remembered her sister, she said, “Because she doesn’t get these treats and I know she likes them and I don’t want her to be left out.” My youngest never had to be told to say thank you to her sister. The huge hug she would give her in seeing the treat was all that was required to let me know the caring gesture had been received and acknowledged.

The Capacity to Care

Where we need to focus our energies is on nurturing a caring spirit in our children. The capacity to care about others is instinctive and is unlocked when a child feels cared for. When a child is cared for by others, there is more caring in that child to give to others.


1. Explain what gifts really mean.

Provide some context for gift giving and orient kids to what gifts are about. Too often a child is focussed on the nature of the gift and whether they like it. To give someone a gift is about demonstrating through some tangible token, that you care about them. It should be the caring that matters and not the gift itself.

2. Don’t ask kids “what do you want for a gift?”

We need to do more than ask kids what they want for their birthday, Christmas or any other occasion, and to avoid just simply responding to their lists of desires. If we give someone a gift, then it makes sense that we should know them well enough to give them something thoughtful. If you have to fish around for ideas behind their back, this also preserves the caring because you spent time to find out who they are.

3Homemade gifts really are special.

A homemade gift is something special and serves to make someone feel significant. Why is this so? Because in making something for another person, it means you thought about them, sacrificed time to make something with your own hands, and created something unique for them. When a child makes a gift for someone, they are oriented to the relationship they have with this person and the feelings they have for them. The gifts that I treasure the most are the ones that have been made for me, like my children’s drawings or my husband’s thoughtful words on anniversaries or birthdays.

4. Prime a child to say thank you instead of commanding a performance.

You can cue a child to situations where expressing gratitude is important and expected without pushing them to give false performances. You can remind the child that when we feel cared for by others, we can show our caring back with a thank you or handshake or whatever gesture is appropriate for the situation. It is also helpful to prime a child towards feeling gratitude by encouraging them to create a card or letter of appreciation to other people when they feel thankful.

5. Live your family values out loud.

The statement that it is better to give than to receive is an important one to orient kids to. We can do this by talking about this value at the dinner table and telling stories about family members who embody this through their acts of generosity. When kids see that generosity matters to their adults, it should resonate and be clear to them that the spirit to care for others is alive and well in their family, and something to be treasured and honoured.

It is not simply enough for us to talk about the importance of generosity or gratitude. We need to live these values out loud for our children to see, and not in a bragging and boastful way. I still remember the quiet generosity of my father as he donated his time and money to his community and families in need. He was never one to broadcast these things to us, but my mother made sure we knew who my father was. She reminded us that our father not only cared about us, but about others too. He and my mother have been steadfast in their example that it is better to give than to receive. By constantly demonstrating their generosity towards others, they orient my family towards knowing that caring about people is what matters most – not the things we accumulate or hold onto as substitutes for love. ■


Dr. Deborah MacNamara is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute, the author of the best-selling book, Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), and is the Director of the Kid’s Best Bet, Counselling and Family Resource Centre.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of RGF Integrated Wealth Management, which makes no representations as to their completeness or accuracy. 

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