More Gratitude, Please

My mother firmly believed that children should write thank you notes for any gifts we received. If we didn’t get them done within a week, she would take possession of the items gifted until we complied. “I’m not raising any ungrateful children,” she declared. “Saying ‘thank you’ is NOT optional!”

Many social scientists believe that gratitude is significant in strengthening human societies. Showing appreciation for each other’s contributions – whether tangible or implicit – acts as a kind of ‘social glue’. It helps build positive relationships, which are essential to strong communities. Without gratitude, we would be less aware of how much our lives are interwoven with one another.

But researchers have found that some human traits can get in the way of gratitude. One such trait is envy. When children (or adults) wish they had what belongs to others, they tend to focus on what they lack rather than on what they receive. They lose sight of all the ways others are supporting and caring for them. Parents and caregivers can acknowledge children’s envious longings while also inviting them to identify some things they’ve received and appreciate.

Another trait that gets in the way of gratitude is narcissism. When children believe that they are superior to others and deserve special privileges, they find it difficult to recognize others’ actions as gifts. Instead, they treat things that others do for them as entitlements. It becomes our job as parents and caregivers, then, to monitor our use of statements like “You’re special” and “You deserve x. Such statements can feed into a narcissistic perspective. Using statements like “I appreciate the effort you put into that painting” and “I enjoy reading books with you” affirm effort and relationships rather than superiority.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, cynicism is a third trait that impedes gratitude. Its foundation is a basic distrust of others’ motives. While not as common in young children, cynicism can affect many adults, who then model it for children. Caregivers and parents may need to examine our personal viewpoints for ways in which we dismiss others actions out-of-hand. If we realize we are passing on cynical stereotypes or perspectives, we might share our struggle with children and invite them to help us recalibrate our ‘trust’ meter.

One way gratitude itself helps us overcome these trait barriers is through its ‘find, remind, and bind’ functions. Paying attention to others’ thoughtfulness helps children find people who want to be in relationship with them. It also reminds children of the support system they already have in place. And it binds them to family, friends, and community members through affirming their efforts to connect in positive ways. Parents and caregivers can teach children to look for, remember, and connect with those around them every day



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