The Science of Gratitude

“Tank you” said my daughter’s two year old friend as I passed out cookies to everyone in our neighborhood playgroup. “Yeah, tank you! Tank you!” others chorused. The assembly of parents smiled, happy that their offspring had remembered their manners.

Teaching children to say ‘thank you’ may seem like a routine part of parenting, but scientists are discovering that learning gratitude can make a big difference in children’s lives. Studies suggest that people who express gratitude regularly tend to feel better about themselves. They also perceive others as sources of support, which lowers their stress and anxiety levels. Researchers believe this is because children (and adults) benefit from feeling connected with others, and acknowledging others’ efforts on our behalf reinforces positive connections.

Furthermore, it appears that gratitude may be – in part – a biological inclination. Many types of animals appear to reciprocate after receiving something positive from another creature. They will share food or help each other with tasks like grooming or hygiene. Scientists call this behavior ‘reciprocal altruism’: acting on behalf of another with an expectation that those favors will be returned.

Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough note that children need to recognize two things to feel gratitude: that something good has happened and they did not cause it to occur. So when parents and caregivers call attention to the positive things other people do for kids, they are pointing out both halves of the gratitude equation. Other research suggests that even young children are able to recognize and acknowledge both elements.

However, not all children view external sources of help positively. Several studies have found that boys (and men) in the U.S. are more reluctant than girls (women) to express gratitude because they believe receiving help signifies weakness. They may feel that saying “thank you” puts them in debt to others, who can then demand repayment later. This negative view of reciprocal altruism must be actively resisted if boys are to reap the benefits of gratitude practices.

Researchers have also found that frequent expressions of gratitude by mothers leads to higher levels of gratitude in kids. They didn’t see the same effect with fathers, which might be related to the cultural biases against gratitude among men. Overall, scientists believe that when parents and caregivers model appreciation for things they receive, children learn to be more grateful.

Another way to cultivate gratitude is to invite children to help keep a family gratitude log or journal. Working independently or together, list ways others have acted positively toward you in a shared book, poster, or online board. Add notes about how you showed gratitude for those actions. You might also flip the focus and list ways you have acted positively toward others and notice how they signaled gratitude back. This practice helps children (and adults) pay attention to how they are part of a large network of grateful people. It also provides new ideas for showing others their actions are appreciated.



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