Helping young children learn about gratitude and being grateful
Thankfulness and gratitude are hard concepts to understand for young children.
To be honest, gratitude can be a hard concept for many ADULTS to grasp, too.
Most toddlers and preschoolers don’t have the emotional ability to understand gratitude yet. They may have difficulty grasping the concept of being thankful for someone or something.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t start teaching them how to be thankful!
Here are some tips to teach thankfulness to preschoolers and toddlers in a way that makes it easy for them to understand.
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Why Is Gratitude so Important?
Gratitude is associated with many physical and mental health benefits. Studies have found that gratitude is related to:
- greater life satisfaction (Wood, Joseph & Maltby 2008)
- positive emotions (Froh, Kashdan, Ozimkowski & Miller 2009)
- stronger relationships (Lambert, Clark, Durtschi, Fincham & Graham 2010)
- cardiovascular health (Gallaher, Solano & Liporace 2020)
- better quality of sleep (Wood, Joseph, Loyd & Atkins, 2008)
Many studies have also found that gratitude is associated with overall well-being. This can mean different things to different people but in general “well-being” is defined as the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.
From this research, we can see that gratitude appears to help people have happier and healthier lifestyles.
Of course, as parents, we want our children to be happy and healthy. Teaching them about gratitude and how to be thankful can help fulfill that desire.
Thankfulness Definition for Kids
How can you teach thankfulness to your toddler or preschooler when it is such an abstract idea?
First, let’s consider the definition of gratitude.
How would you define being thankful?
I love this definition from The Gratitude Project:
Gratitude has two components. One is an affirmation that there are good things in the world, things from which we’ve benefited. Two is a recognition of where that goodness comes from—the people and things in our life that have conspired to give it to us.Smith, J., Newman, K.M., Marsh, J., Keltner, D. (Eds.) – The Gratitude Project
Figure out how you would define being thankful and then break it down into easy-to-understand parts.
For me, thankfulness means noticing and appreciating the good things in your life; the things that make you happy, that bring you joy, that make you feel safe and loved.
If we think of what being grateful means in simple terms, it will be easier to help our children understand.
How Do Children Learn About Being Thankful?
Thankfulness develops throughout childhood. As children develop cognitively and emotionally, they are able to understand gratefulness in different ways.
In 1938, Franziska Baumgarten-Tramer, a psychologist in Switzerland, identified four types of gratitude while studying gratitude in children and adolescents.
- Verbal gratefulness: Expressing gratitude verbally (such as saying thank you).
- Concrete gratefulness: When children express gratitude by giving something to someone.
- Connective gratefulness: Expressing gratitude by repaying someone with something that benefits them in some way or builds a relationship with them.
- Finalistic gratefulness: When children repay a favor with an action that promotes their own personal development. For example, a teenager who repays someone for giving them a job by working hard and being on time to work.
Gratitude has also been looked at as having the following four components:
- What we notice – Being aware of receiving gifts or acts of kindness from others; paying attention and appreciating the good in life.
- How we think about why we received something – Understanding that this gift was given by someone for a reason.
- How we feel about things we have been given – Being aware of having positive feelings after receiving a gift or experiencing a kindness from another and being able to associate those feelings with receiving the gifts.
- What we do to express appreciation – Showing thankfulness in a way that goes beyond just being polite. For example, a heartfelt thank you, returning a favor, and being inspired to give to others.
Toddlers and preschoolers may only engage in some of these at one time.
Furthermore, they may require prompting. Parents may have to prompt younger children to say thank you or encourage them to think about how nice it is when someone does something for them.
As they get older, children will start making associations between experiencing gratitude (by noticing, thinking, and feeling) with expressing gratitude (doing). (source)
So, how can we help our toddlers and preschoolers build a foundation for becoming thankful people?
How To Teach Thankfulness To Preschoolers & Toddlers
1. Model Gratitude for Children
In order to raise grateful children, we have to be grateful parents.
Do you model thankfulness with your spouse, other family members, and other people that you come in contact with?
Kids, especially toddlers, learn by imitating those around them.
Our children see and hear so much. I’m often amazed at what my kids have picked up on that I would never have expected them to notice.
To help teach your toddlers or preschoolers thankfulness, start practicing gratitude yourself.
Looking for ways to help yourself become a more grateful person? Register at Thnx4.org – an online sharable gratitude journal and sign up to take one of the gratitude challenges.
2. Encourage Your Kids to Say Thank You
I remember ‘thank you’ was one of the first words my daughter said.
She heard it all the time because we used it all the time. We frequently encouraged her to say thank you as well.
You can encourage your little ones to give thanks by modeling how and when to say thank you and prompting them to say thank you.
You can teach babies and young toddlers who don’t have strong language skills yet the sign for thank you. It’s a super simple sign!
You can see how to sign thank you in the video below.
While saying thank you doesn’t necessarily mean your child understands being thankful, it’s still a good start on the journey to teaching gratitude!
Plus, who doesn’t want a polite kid with great manners?
3. Identify and Talk About Emotions
Gratitude is a complex feeling that can be difficult for young children to understand and process.
However, you can still start to teach toddlers and preschoolers about thankfulness and being grateful.
A child’s understanding of complex emotions has to start with understanding more simple feelings.
A study published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology examined if there were developmental precursors to young children’s understanding of gratitude.
This study showed that preschoolers who had a better understanding of emotions at age three, had a more complete understanding of gratitude by age five.
This shows that certain emotional skills (for example, understanding feelings like happy, sad, angry, and scared) may have a positive effect on understanding gratitude and learning about thankfulness.
Toddlers are able to express a wide range of emotions and this is a great age to start talking about different feelings.
Talk with your children about what emotions they are feeling, how it makes them feel, and what other things make them feel that way.
At first, you may need to give your child the words, such as saying, “You’re feeling mad that it’s time to leave the park.”
But eventually, they will be able to name their feelings and tell you how certain situations make them feel.
4. Talk About Being Thankful with Your Kids
This study on raising grateful children found that parents who engaged in frequent acts of gratitude socialization with their children reported more frequent displays of gratitude from their children (versus parents with fewer socialization acts).
Acts of gratitude socialization included things like the parents pointing out to their children that they received something special and asking about their feelings when they received that gift.
Parents reported their children expressed more gratitude behaviors (including acknowledging gifts and experiencing positive feelings in response to receiving a gift) on days when the parents engaged their children in gratitude-directed acts (such as asking their child to think about why they received something).
This shows that when parents discuss and talk about gratitude with their children, it helps increase their children’s awareness of being thankful.
This can have a positive effect on assisting a child to make the connection between receiving something, feeling thankful for it, and expressing their thankfulness.
The researchers of the above study believe that children who receive more gratitude socialization from their parents, display more thankful behaviors because they learn more about gratitude and are given the opportunity to see that their parents value gratitude.
Talking about being thankful with toddlers and preschoolers can help teach them about being thankful.
Some suggestions to help teach your child to practice gratitude by talking about it are:
- Ask about their feelings when they’ve received something
- Talk about a shared experience and why it makes you feel thankful
- Praise them for expressing gratitude
5. Help Toddlers and Preschoolers to Send Thank You Notes
I think it’s important to send a thank you card after having a party where people bring presents or after receiving a gift from someone.
If you’re sending out thank you cards for gifts your toddler has received, encourage them to help you.
After my daughter’s second birthday, I wrote out thank you cards to everyone who came to her party. I told my daughter who each card was for and asked her to draw a special picture for them on the card.
Another great way to teach toddlers and preschoolers thankfulness is to have them send out a thank you card when someone has taken the time to do something nice for them.
My father-in-law always buys diapers and wipes for his grandkids. A few weeks ago, he also sent over some juice boxes as a treat for my three-year-old.
I said, “Papa was so nice to bring you these juice boxes. How should we thank him? Should we write him a thank you note? “
My daughter agreed and even told me what to write. It was a fun activity to do with her.
My in-laws were so excited to receive the card from my daughter that they called to thank her for the thank you note!
6. Share What You’re Thankful for Each Day as a Family
This is something I have been trying to implement with my kids during dinnertime.
I try to mention at least one thing I’m grateful for each day and encourage them to do the same.
I’ve found that thinking about and feeling grateful for things throughout the day increases my happiness level.
The first few times I asked my daughter to tell me something she was thankful for, she sang a line from a CocoMelon song (see below): “I’m thankful for my family…”
Now, she has started telling me different things each day. She is thankful for “my mom”, “my friends” and “the ocean”.
The other day, as we were sitting down to eat breakfast, she completely surprised me by asking, “Mom, what are you thankful for today?”
It may seem like our toddlers and preschool-aged kids are not listening to us, especially when we have to tell them 23 times to pick up their toys.
But, when it comes to the big stuff we’re trying to teach them, they hear us more than we may think.
Try sharing gratitudes once a day as a family.
This could happen at dinnertime, during breakfast, at bedtime, or whenever feels right for you and works for your family’s schedule.
7. Create a Gratitude or Thankful Jar
A thankful jar is a great way to incorporate the act of being grateful into your daily routine.
Toddlers and preschoolers will need help and guidance with thankful activities which is why a gratitude jar is such an awesome activity for this age group.
You can use an activity like a thankful jar or blessings jar to help teach thankfulness to preschoolers and toddlers.
Here’s how we made our gratitude jar this year and how we use it to help teach our children about being thankful.
8. Use Media For Teaching Toddlers and Preschoolers Thankfulness
Media, such as books, television shows, and songs can help teach and reinforce thankfulness for toddlers and preschoolers.
Children’s Shows That Teach Thankfulness
- Thank You, Grandpere Tiger! / Neighborhood Thank You Day (season 2, episode 4) from Daniel Tiger (available on PBS Kids or Google Play)
We love Daniel Tiger in our house. This episode is all about being thankful (of course). The neighborhood gets together for Thank You Day. They write notes to each other about what they’re thankful for and hang them on a special tree.
Children’s Books About Being Thankful
Books are a great resource to introduce being thankful to your toddler or preschooler especially if you’re not sure where to start or not sure how much they’ll understand. There are a lot of great books on thankfulness for kids.
The Thankful Book by Todd Parr
This colorful book talks about all the things that kids can be thankful for.
I’m Thankful Each Day by P.K. Hallinan
An easy-to-read, rhyming story about finding things to be grateful for every day (mentions God).
I’m Feeling Thankful by Natalie Shaw
Daniel Tiger remembers the things that make him feel thankful and the ways he can show others gratefulness.
Gratitude Is My Superpower by Alicia Ortego
My Attitude of Gratitude by Melissa Winn
Children’s Songs About Being Thankful
If you’re like me, you probably hate getting catchy kids’ songs stuck in your head over and over again.
However, it does make it a little more tolerable if they are songs that teach something or have a good message.
Thankful For Friends Song from Sesame Street
The Thank You Song by CoComelon **FAIR WARNING: I get this one stuck inside my head ALL THE TIME.**
9. Let Your Child Teach YOU About Gratitude
There are so many times I get frustrated with my three-year-old because it seems like she’s not listening or she’s taking way too long to do a simple task.
Is your toddler also a procrastination king or queen?
Try viewing their actions from a different perspective.
Kids are fascinated by things that adults don’t really pay attention to anymore – an ant crawling on the ground, puddles after a rainstorm, or someone walking their dog.
Take that opportunity to nurture their curiosity and encourage them to continue to appreciate the simple things.
If we start viewing life from our toddler’s point of view, it can help us to appreciate the little things. This will carry over into what we model and teach our kids.
Remember that grateful parents raise grateful kids. Let your children remind you how to appreciate life and find joy and thankfulness in simple things.
Final Thoughts on How To Teach Thankfulness To Toddlers And Preschoolers
People who practice thankfulness have a tendency to be happier and healthier.
Even if they don’t fully comprehend it, children can start to learn about gratitude and thankfulness from a young age.
Start by encouraging babies and young toddlers to say or sign thank you when appropriate.
As your toddler grows, identify and talk about emotions.
Reflect on what you’re grateful for each day and talk with your kids about WHY you’re thankful.
You can also help children understand the concept of thankfulness through books, songs, and kid-friendly programming.
Finally, don’t forget to let your children remind you how to appreciate and be thankful for the simple things.
If you want more information on how to teach your kids to be thankful, I highly recommend The Gratitude Project. This is a fantastic book on the psychology of gratitude and the benefits of living a thankful life.
Have your kids ever surprised you with acts of gratitude, whether it be a sweet thank you or a big gesture of thanks? Share it in the comments!
Related Posts on Thankfulness and Thanksgiving:
- Thankful Jar Activity for Toddlers and Preschoolers
- Thanksgiving Traditions To Start With Your Family
Related Posts on Parenting Toddlers:
- Toys For Toddlers That Encourage Language Development
- How To Easily Potty Train Your Toddler
- 11 Helpful Chores Your Two-Year-Old Can Do
Freitas, L. B. L., Pieta, M. A. M. & Tudge, J. R. H. (2011). Beyond Politeness: The Expression of Gratitude in Children and Adolescents. https://www.scielo.br/pdf/prc/v24n4/a16v24n4.pdf
Hussong et. al. (2019). Raising Grateful Children One Day at a Time. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6980353/pdf/nihms-1504624.pdf
Originally published 10/19/2020