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The season of giving thanks can’t come quickly enough for some parents.
Four in five parents who responded to a poll from the University of Michigan Health say children today are not grateful enough.
Parents who responded to the poll say they are teaching their children the magic words, “please and thank you.” However, when it comes to actions over words, the children – and parents – could be falling short, said Sarah Clark, research scientist at the University of Michigan and co-director of the poll.
Nearly all parents say it’s possible to teach children gratitude, and three-fourths of parents say teaching gratitude is a priority. The most common ways parents teach children gratitude are “please and thank you,” followed by enforcing chores. Just over one-third of parents use strategies like donating toys or clothes and saying a prayer of thanks.
“My hope is a poll like this causes some parents to stop and think about, ‘Are we being purposeful about teaching our kids how to be grateful?’” Clark said.
The national sample includes parents of children 4 to 10 years old. The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan conducts monthly polls to observe child health. The poll “purposefully” did not define gratitude; Clark said parents had to bring their own interpretation of the word.
The poll’s report also provided five strategies to nurture gratitude in children – including saying thank you, discussing gratitude, helping with family chores, volunteering and donating.
Expressing gratitude can improve mental health for both children and adults, studies have found. But children don’t develop gratitude automatically – parents need to model and create strategies to teach children these behaviors, Clark said. Volunteering and community service can help children see what they should be thankful for, and what they can do for others, the report said.
Emily Conder, a research scientist and doctoral student in Vanderbilt University’s psychology and human development department, published a study about how children can develop negative biases toward people after overhearing negative words. Children can model behaviors from indirect sources as well.
“It’s important to remember as parents that modeling comes from you and also comes from what’s on TV and what they’re hearing from other sources,” Conder said.
Parents can also play a role in how children process and express emotions, said Ashley Ruba, postdoctoral researcher in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Child Emotion Lab.
She said when parents talk to their children about emotions, both positive and negative, children have a better understanding of what they are feeling and how to react.
“Gratitude can be socialized in a similar way … actually having conversations about things that you’re grateful for and why you’re grateful for these things,” Ruba said.
Coming of age in a pandemic
The emotional and physical toll of the pandemic burdens an already complicated stage of a child’s life. Young people’s depression and anxiety doubled during the pandemic, an analysis published in August found.
Ruba said social isolation and missing out on school can be scary for younger children. But strategies like discussing children’s feelings and keeping a gratitude journal can help.
Parenting during the pandemic isn’t any easier.
“We ask a lot of parents. They have to do a lot. … It’s been a tough couple of years for kids, so it’s fine to cut kids some slack,” Clark said. “But don’t abandon altogether that parent responsibility of the other things you have to teach your kids and model.”
As we approach the holiday season, Clark said gifts and giving are a perfect place to start. Slip a thank-you card into the gift opening routine or add volunteering to the family’s holiday traditions.
“It’s never too late to start. Thanksgiving and the whole holiday season is a really easy time to gets kids started,” Clark said. “It is what we call the teachable moment.”