How do children learn to be grateful? Child development research explores ways that we can support this process.
Recently, one of my friends was venting about her teenage daughter being “so ungrateful!” She asked me, “How can she not know how much she has?”
This mom isn’t alone. Parents hope (or expect!) that their children will grow up to be grateful. In a recent study, Amy Halberstadt and colleagues found that parents get peeved when their children don’t show gratitude. As one parent said, “I can be embarrassed as a parent, I can feel angry at [my child] that he hasn’t sufficiently conveyed gratitude when I thought he should.”
But how does gratitude develop? How early do kids start to feel and express gratitude?
One 2013 study aimed to discover the foundations of young children’s understanding of gratitude. When children were three and four years old, the researchers measured their emotion knowledge and perspective taking through a variety of tasks and questions in the laboratory. When children were five years old, the researchers tested how much they understood the positive feelings of gratitude and the reciprocity it might inspire.
Researchers found that the more a five-year-old understood gratitude, the more they had understood emotions and other people’s perspectives when they were three years old. In other words, children’s early emotional awareness and perspective-taking ability may underpin their later development of gratitude.
A 2018 study of seven- to 14-year-olds across Brazil, China, Guatemala, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, and the United States explored how children’s development of gratitude differs across cultures. In most cultures, expressions of “concrete gratitude” decreased as children got older. Concrete gratitude is when children offer something in repayment that is valuable to themselves rather than the other person, like giving a toy to a parent.
Older children were more likely to express “connective gratitude” than younger children in the United States, China, and Russia. Connective gratitude is considered to be a more advanced type of gratitude, when children offer something that is meaningful to another person in return—for example, a child giving a friend a teddy bear that the friend has long wished for. Connective gratitude more fully takes into account another person’s thoughts and feelings, compared to concrete gratitude or verbal gratitude (such as saying “thank you”).
Among the seven cultures, children in China and South Korea were more likely to express connective gratitude (followed by children in Russia and Turkey). American children were more likely to express concrete gratitude, and Guatemalan children were more likely to express verbal gratitude, compared to the other cultures. These findings highlight the important cultural context of gratitude development that is often overlooked by studies exclusively in North America or Europe.
Another recent study investigated possible precursors to gratitude among older children and adolescents, ages 10 to 16. The results indicated that middle schoolers who reported greater gratitude were more likely to feel like they had greater social support from their parents and, to a lesser degree, their teachers.
How can parents set the stage for their children to be grateful? Research suggests that grateful parents raise grateful kids, and a recent study tried to figure out why. The findings? The more gratitude parents felt, the more often they set goals to foster gratitude in their six- to nine-year old children. In turn, they placed their children in more activities that provided opportunities for gratitude, such as family gratitude practices and social service events, and their kids expressed more gratitude. To read more from MARYAM ABDULLAH click here.