The Harvard EdCast

How to Raise Grateful Children

Episode Summary

Andrea Hussong discusses the how and why of raising grateful children.

Episode Notes

What does it mean to raise a grateful child? Developmental scientist and psychologist Andrea Hussong from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill says it’s a lot more than teaching your child about basic manners. In fact, it’s a lot deeper than that and parents play a crucial role in modeling gratitude, how they create opportunities for children to experience gratefulness, and even talking to their children about it. 

After studying parents and children, she recognized components of gratitude: what we notice, how we think or feel about it, what we do and how we enact grateful behaviors. 

“One of the big things that gratitude does that I think is so important for kids is it helps us find people in our environment that care about us.” Hussong says. “It strengthens our relationship with them, and it makes that support network surround us with a little more care. And we know social support is so important, particularly now, when we're dealing with these pandemics of loneliness and isolation. We really need that.”

In this episode of the EdCast, Hussong shares strategies that can help your child develop a deeper understanding of gratitude,  how you can foster it in the hearts and minds of your children, and the way to pivot as your child becomes a teenager. She also addresses the potential impact of gratitude on mental health. 

Episode Transcription



JILL ANDERSON: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 


Andrea Hussong knows there are things parents can do to instill gratitude in their children and it goes beyond knowing when to say "please" and "thank you." She's a developmental scientist and psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she leads the project Raising Grateful Children, that examines what parents do to teach their children about gratitude. 


Although there's been a lot of research on how adults can become more grateful, we still know little about gratitude in children and the role parents play in developing it. Her work has uncovered some of the ways parents can raise thankful kids, and why it's so important to do so. I wondered how she even got started studying gratitude in children. 


ANDREA HUSSONG: Most of my research has really been on trying to understand the development of substance use, so alcohol and drug use, in kids into young adults. And we had been looking at a parenting program to help moms in recovery who have young kids. And one of the things that we learned in that process was that some of the moms were more into it, and they seemed to be more grateful for the program and for their therapists they were working with. And some of the other moms just, really had a hard time going there. And they had a lot of trauma, which might have gotten in the way of that. 


And we just wanted to say, could we back it all the way up so that we could help them develop a capacity for gratitude that would see them into adulthood? And we're like, OK, let's go to the research literature and just see what parents do to socialize gratitude in kids, and we'll put it into our program. And lo and behold-- and this is about 2011-- there were no studies at all. There was no research at all on what parents do to foster gratitude in their kids. And so, it got us on this path of just trying to understand that question more generally. 


JILL ANDERSON: That's something that seems really surprising to me, that there was very little research. And we're not even talking about going back to the 1950s or the 1990s. This is 2011—




JILL ANDERSON: --about gratitude. Why do you think that is


ANDREA HUSSONG: Well, most of the research that's out there is on adults and comes out of the positive psychology movement. And so that's like, full-fledged, grown up, I figured out how to do gratitude research. But there wasn't even that much training to understand what gratitude looks like in younger ones. There was some, but most of that was from the field of moral development and really trying to understand that as a way of engaging with others. There literally was nothing that really focused on what parents do. 


There was a lot of literature on parents and empathy in kids, so some of the building blocks of gratitude. But we were also surprised. We thought we were going to be able to just pull in knowledge that already existed. 


JILL ANDERSON: It's just interesting. It feels like in education, there's been a little bit of movement about mindfulness and that type of stuff some schools incorporate in the classroom or even with just some social emotional learning. I'm not sure how much gratitude is a part of that or even incorporated into it. 


ANDREA HUSSONG: It is. There's been some lovely work by Jeff Rowe and Giacomo Bono, who've done some gratitude-specific interventions that are for classrooms. And they're sort of one or two sessions where they're doing some letter writing or some gratitude journaling or the types of things that we read about on the internet to do to foster gratitude in kids. And you do see some changes in that, but they don't seem to last a long time. But the people who are there doing it all the time with their kids are the parents. 


JILL ANDERSON: So what is gratitude? Why is it important? 


ANDREA HUSSONG: There's lots of definitions, right? And my stance on definitions is they're not right or wrong, they're useful or not. And our question was, what are parents doing to foster gratitude? So we wanted to know what parents thought gratitude was, so we started with some focus groups to try to get parents' own take on gratitude. 


If you see your kid being grateful, what are they doing? How do you know? And we ended up defining gratitude a little bit differently. And we define it as moments, because that's how parents were talking about it, rather than like, my kid's a grateful kid or not a grateful kid. 


And we talk about gratitude as sort of having four beats. It's what you notice, that you either have or have been given, so that awareness. And then it's how do you make sense of that thing that you have? And it's your thoughts and feelings about it that is going to lead you to feeling grateful or not. So if you're happy you got that thing, you don't owe it back, it was given to you in particular, those types of thoughts that we might have about what we have lead to gratitude versus something like feeling indebted. 


So it's what we're aware of, what we notice, what we think, and feel about that, and then what we do, those behaviors-- those grateful behaviors, and how we enact them. So we talk about gratitude as having those four beats. And parents can intervene on all of them. 


JILL ANDERSON: One of the things that parents might get stuck, at least with younger children-- we'll talk about when kids get a little bit older shortly-- it seems like even for parents, it's hard to grasp what gratitude means. And so, oftentimes, we might get stuck telling our kid to say "thank you" or focus more on the manners piece of it. How do you move beyond just focusing on good manners, getting your child to say "thank you," and really take it to a different place of meaning? 


ANDREA HUSSONG: First is thinking about gratitude as more than just the behavior. 




ANDREA HUSSONG: So when we look at what parents do to foster gratitude in kids, they do a lot of what you're talking about. Focusing on the behavior. But even six-year-olds in our study said, "She said, thank you, but she didn't mean it." Six-year-olds get that the behavior is not the same thing as meaning it. 


So helping parents also say, what do I do to help my kid be more aware and notice things? How do I help them be in touch with their thoughts and feelings about what they have? And the more that parents can do that, the more they can help kids find, what we call, the gift behind the gift. I know that my aunt gave me that sweater, and it's got butterflies on it, and she knows I like butterflies. So the gift wasn't just the sweater. It was that she was thinking about me, and that this was for me. And the more you're sort of in touch with that intention that someone else has for giving you, the more it feels good and personal. And it's not about the sweater anymore. It's about your connection. 


And parents can help young kids and older kids think about how they receive things. And we have a model of how we think about what parents can do to foster gratitude in kids to get at those different components. 


JILL ANDERSON: Tell me more about this model because I'm curious in thinking about even myself as a parent and the way I may be not making these reflections be as effective as they could be. 


ANDREA HUSSONG: Well, it takes some awareness. I mean, one of the things that we know is that parents who practice a lot of gratitude themselves are modeling it for their kids. And we don't just mean practicing the behaviors of gratitude to model it. So sometimes it's like, I got this card from my sister-in-law, and it was just so nice that she sent it to me. 


You can say out loud what your thoughts are because she didn't have to send this to me. She did it because she wanted to. And it makes me feel good, so I think I'm going to write her back. And so we can say out loud and model gratitude more than just saying, oh, you saw me put that card in the mail. So that's one thing we can do is modeling. 


A second thing that we can do is the opportunities we create for our kids to see gratitude in action. And we call this niche selection, but as a parent, I would say it's, what do you sign your kid up for? What kind of families are you hanging out with? Are you part of a community where gratitude is valued and they can see it happening around them? So the more they see it in their communities, the more grateful we know kids are. 


The third thing is how we just talk to kids about times that they've been grateful. And how we help them find those beats of the gratitude moment. And the questions that we might ask. And how we use conversational tools in doing that. One of the things that we have is an online program to help parents think about how to develop some skills in having those conversations. 


And then there's a fourth thing that parents can do, and this is one that really came up from the parents in our focus groups. And they're like, how do you respond when your kid blows it? 


JILL ANDERSON: I'm thinking about that in my own mind right now. I have some specific examples for you that I'm hoping, don't just happen to me. 


ANDREA HUSSONG: It happens a lot. And parents who care about gratitude have a super hard time when their kids are not grateful. And some of that's when they're not grateful to them as a parent, which is doubly challenging, but also, when they just don't see it out in the world. 




ANDREA HUSSONG: And there are some responses we can have to kids not being grateful that are probably more helpful than others. So we think about, these are the four things that parents can be doing. They can be modeling. They can be finding opportunity to see gratitude. They can talk to their kids about when they're grateful. And also, when they weren't. 


JILL ANDERSON: In a way, it almost sounds like upping your own gratitude game as an adult may have that effect on your kid, as well, where they will notice it if you say it out loud if you actually do it. Because it's not necessarily something ingrained in people to think that way. 


ANDREA HUSSONG: There's so much available on the internet for practicing gratitude. And they're all various tools. And the goal is to find the one that works for you. For us, a lot of it is, like a lot of emotional training that we give kids, so much of it's inside our heads. So even when we're trying to teach a kid to have frustration tolerance and get through something we might say, OK, what can we do while we're waiting? We can think about-- and we kind of scaffold that internal experience. We're just doing the same thing with gratitude. But you're right. We got to know what the internal experience is for us to say it out loud. 


JILL ANDERSON: I want to share a couple examples of things that maybe you can offer some insight into how, maybe, you can respond as a parent. You mentioned the card. I think about a child getting a card in the mail, and we're talking elementary age. I'm not necessarily talking older kids. A card comes in the mail, maybe it's a birthday card or something from a grandparent, and it's opened. It's tossed on the table, and the manners piece, just even saying thank you, kind of in and out of their head instantly. 

And then you feel like you have to force them to say thank you. So what would be a better way to handle that type of situation? 


ANDREA HUSSONG: All right. Is the grandparent present? 




ANDREA HUSSONG: So you can do a bunch of scaffolding that that person doesn't see. 





ANDREA HUSSONG: One of the things we encourage parents to think about when they're helping their kids get into a grateful moment is to make sure they're taking the kid's perspective. Because our goal and the kids goals may be at odds, but we don't even know what's going on for the kid. So they may have tossed that card because that big present over there is all I want to get to. 


So they need to satisfy that curiosity or move on before they can kind of focus on that card. If we're in early elementary, and we know how their brains work, that's kind of expected, developmentally. But we can bring them back to the card, and we can help them notice things about the card.


So what's on the card? Oh, who signed it? Oh, and help them identify those things that are about the card that resonate with them. And then we can ask them questions about, do you think that they had to send that to you? No? That was a choice they made? That's pretty cool. Why do you think they sent it to you? 


And sometimes, if you get to that bottom line is, they care about me. That is probably one of the big places that we get to, where we then feel grateful the most because we're really grateful for that connection. And a lot of what we're trying to do, too, is help children perspective-take. Like, oh, what do you think it was like for your grandparent to pick out that card? Do you think you might be wondering what you got? Because they can't see. 


So part of it is also helping the kid to know why somebody gave you something. You got to do that huge skill of taking on somebody else's perspective, and they're still learning that. 


JILL ANDERSON: How about more big picture, not in the moment? Is it difficult for kids to understand gratefulness in almost an abstract way-- like reflecting on their day, and maybe asking them about something they feel thankful for? Does that go over their head? 


ANDREA HUSSONG: It sort of varies. I mean, one of the things that we know is that younger kids-- six, seven, eight-- they're really most grateful, and recognize that for very concrete things. You know, I got pudding for lunch. I like pudding. And that's just where their cognition is. And it's when they get older that they do a better job of themselves finding those more abstract things they can be grateful for, that I had lunch, and other people don't. And that just takes a little bit more development often. But that is something parents can help scaffold, to some extent. 


One of the things that we found interesting, and continue to try to understand is, particularly parents who have more privilege in their families, they use social comparison a lot to try to invoke gratitude. So, aren't you lucky there are people in the world who don't have? 


And it's an interesting double edge because you're trying to get them to be grateful for what they have, but you're also reinforcing a have-and-have-not view on where people are. And so it's an interesting thing to try to do that as an awareness piece, and I think being able to do that in a way that's more about being grateful for what you have, but not in a way that means that you are privileged and somebody is not, and there's something about that that's different. 


I'll give you a concrete example. One of the tasks that we had in our study, we had parents come in with their six-to-nine-year-old kids and have conversations about various things. But one was those wonderful books that are out there about what people own in different countries, and they've put everything from their house out front, and you can see all their belongings. And we had parents and their kids just flip through some of these pictures, and just have a conversation about it. 


And a six-year-old in the study was saying, you know, mom, this is a picture of somebody in a low-income country-- they wouldn't use that language-- but they don't have very much, and I think they're really sad because they don't have very much. And there's that idea that there's something less than or sad about not having. 


And this mom was on it, and was basically saying, why do you think they're sad? And trying to pull those two things apart. But we can inadvertently give the message that having less stuff is somehow not as good. It's tricky when parents who can give their kids, not just what they need, but what they want think about the messages they want to give, and what we do with privilege. 


JILL ANDERSON: That's really fascinating. How does the conversation around gratitude need to change as children grow and get into their pre-teen and teen years? 


ANDREA HUSSONG: As they grow up, they'll do a better job at perspective taking. So when they're little, we might have to say, I think Grandma gave that to you because she knows blue's your favorite color. But as they're older, they should be generating some of that perspective themselves. And they can generate their how they want to enact that gratitude piece, the behavior piece. 


The thank you card may not be their thing. It may be a different way that they want to demonstrate that they're grateful for something. So I think that they own the process more. There's less parent structuring of that response. They have a tendency to get more in-tune with those things they're grateful for that are less concrete. 


So those things will come up, too. There is that period going into adolescence that's a bit challenging, where we know they become egocentric-- much more self-focused. They should because their job is to start taking care of themselves more independently. So there's a new and adjustment period that comes during that period of saying, oh, being grateful to you, does that mean, like, I'm grateful for my teacher that I got into this after-school program? 


What about me? I worked really hard. And particularly, in a society that's really values independence, and owning-- being self-determined in the things that happen to you, recognizing somebody else's role is something that can be challenging. 




ANDREA HUSSONG: One of the high school principals that I worked with was like, I don't know if I like this fostering gratitude in girls. Aren't we just teaching them to give away their ownership of their own successes? And we don't want to do that. So I think that's another kind of thing that happens as they get into adolescence, is making sure they're aware of what they're doing that's bringing something into their lives. But also, at the same time, instead of an or, an and, recognizing the role that other people play in those things happening. 


JILL ANDERSON: It's a lot more complicated than you would just think on the surface. I think sometimes people hear the term gratitude, and they maybe identify it as some kind of soft topic. But it doesn't sound like it really is in practice. 


ANDREA HUSSONG: That's been my own journey, too. I certainly started that way myself in thinking about, this is about showing appreciation. But that's just the behavior at the end. The experience along the way is what I think is really where you get those benefits. So, I mean, we know this-- there are health benefits. There are social benefits. There are all kinds of benefits for gratitude. I don't think those benefits are because you say thank you. 




ANDREA HUSSONG: One of the big things that gratitude does that I think is so important for kids is it helps us find people in our environment that care about us. It strengthens our relationship with them, and it makes that support network surround us with a little more care. And we know social support is so important, particularly now, when we're dealing with these pandemics of loneliness and isolation. We really need that.


JILL ANDERSON: I'm glad you actually brought that up because that's something I did want to ask you about is how much we're seeing teens struggling with mental health issues. There's increased anxiety. I want to know a little bit about what is the role of gratitude in possibly helping teens with anxiety and mental health? 


ANDREA HUSSONG: I love that you asked that question. We've been doing some work in this topic of the mental health impact of the pandemic. We are not seeing a lot of impact of gratitude at this point. That might be that we're not asking the question the right way yet because it makes a lot of sense that anything that helps us connect to other people should help decrease that isolation and loneliness, and then get to the point of reducing some of the anxiety, and depression, and suicidal ideation. Those are the big three that we're seeing now coming out of the pandemic. 

And it could be that gratitude is a slow evolution that the youth need to come into. It could also be that we've got to figure out how this is working digitally because there's so much that moved online with our social interactions. And it could be that we need more than just the gratitude. We need to see what's going along with that. 


I don't know the answer. The data that we have is not showing that gratitude by itself is buffering some of that impact, but the data didn't come to the present day. It's sort of within the pandemic itself. 


JILL ANDERSON: Right, and it hasn't been very long. 


ANDREA HUSSONG: It hasn't, no. And we're still having so many reverberations of the pandemic in daily life for children and youth-- all of us, but particularly for children and youth. 


JILL ANDERSON: Is there a way to get this wrong raising your kids? 


ANDREA HUSSONG: Yes. A lot of that is how we respond when kids aren't grateful. 




ANDREA HUSSONG: And some of the things that we can get hung up on is what that means about us, and then we can get angry, and we can get dismissive. And we can blame our kids, and criticize them. None of that helps. 


That's not shocking to hear, but it's a pretty common response that well-intentioned parents have when their kids are blowing gratitude, particularly when they're blowing it in the relationship they have with their kid. So the other side of that is to work hard to ask open-ended questions of your kiddo to try to figure out where are they coming from. Because we're so often really just working from different perspectives, our assumption is you don't care or respect me because you are not acknowledging what I'm doing for you every day. 


But that may not be the child's experience. The child might be experiencing it a very different way, in that, my job here is to get my schoolwork done and so when I come in, I just go right to my room, and I just sort ignore everything else. And that's what happened in the moment for them. So getting on the same page is a big part of it, and also trying to unpack what's happening for our kid and our reaction to it from one another so that we can make choices in our parenting that we want to be making is another part. 


JILL ANDERSON: What would you say is one thing that maybe all parents should do with their kids every day to help foster gratitude? 


ANDREA HUSSONG: First, there are so many values we're trying to instill in our kids. I wouldn't say do one every day. Just try to do them as you can. I think, take a little pressure off ourselves for the value-laden parenting that we're trying to do. There's a lot of them. But, I think, acknowledging gratitude in our kids when they've done it, and ask them about what they think and feel about those things they're receiving. 


JILL ANDERSON: Well, thank you so much for sharing all this really interesting stuff-- and helpful-- in terms of thinking about gratitude, and how to build it in our kids. 


ANDREA HUSSONG: Happy to do it. And the other thing I would say, Jill, is we have a free online program for parents, if they're interested in learning a little more about the conversational skills for talking about gratitude and lack of gratitude with their kids. 



JILL ANDERSON: Andrea Hussong is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she leads Raising Grateful Children, a project of the Center for Developmental Science. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.