As American families sit down to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner this year, at least some parents with young children will brace for the fall-out: complaints about wearing nice clothes, refusals to eat the broccoli, and insistent requests for more pie.
How can we teach our kids to be more grateful for what they have?
Gratitude research offers some suggestions. Among them, it can help to talk frequently with kids about emotions, to de-emphasize material values, and to explain the sacrifices other people make in order to help them.
The good news is that gratefulness is malleable, says Jeffrey Froh, a psychologist at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and co-author of Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character. It can be taught.
And it's worth it: Among adults, studies have consistently linked gratitude with reports of better health, higher levels of happiness, more satisfaction with life, better relationships and less stress, among other benefits.
For teenagers and pre-teens, a smaller and newer body of research also suggests that gratitude brings happiness, optimism, better friendships, less envy, less materialism and better grades in school. One study of hundreds of adolescents found that those who naturally became more grateful over a four-year period were less likely to cheat on tests and more likely to help other kids.
"That, to us, is an indication that gratitude does way more than make us feel good. It literally makes us do good," Froh says. "People don't realize how powerful this is for personal development."
Less is known about the benefits or even the development of thankfulness at younger ages. Babies tend to be driven by their own needs, and that persists into toddlerhood. But research suggests that the seeds of gratitude can start early -- and that doesn't just mean learning to say, "Thank you."
In 2012 study, researchers asked 263 preschoolers to identify how puppets felt as they acted out a variety of stories. Results linked a better understanding of emotions at age 3 with a better understanding of gratitude at age 5. That's when studies show that the majority of kids have developed at least some sense of what it means to be grateful.
Between ages 3 and 5 is also when kids start to develop an understanding that other people's behaviors are intentional, Froh says. If they learn to decipher the emotions of others, they can then recognize when someone makes a decision to help them. It's that mental link that allows empathy to develop and gratitude to emerge.
"The more a kid is able to understand, ‘You went out of your way for me and have my best interest in mind,' Froh says, "the more grateful they are going to feel."
A simple way to expand a young child's emotional vocabulary is to use books and movies as an opportunity to discuss how characters might be feeling. Froh also suggests talking about your own emotions, using descriptive words, subtlety and nuance. And get beyond simple emotions like "happy," "sad," and "mad."
As kids progress through elementary school, they can benefit from deliberate lessons about the benefits of gratitude and ways to enhance it, suggest new data. After working through a gratitude curriculum created by Froh and colleagues, 8- to 11-year olds were more grateful and happier up to six months later. Kids who received the curriculum also wrote and delivered 80 percent more thank-you cards to the PTA for giving a presentation, after they were given the choice between writing a note or playing for a few minutes.
The five-session curriculum covers three essential steps towards learning to feel grateful for acts of kindness. First is recognizing intent, or the decision someone made to help you. The second step is considering what it cost that person to help. Last comes recognition of how you benefitted from their help. This kind of "intent-cost-benefit" framework can help structure the way parents talk to their kids about all sorts of situations.
Froh offers an example of a friend coming over to help his son James with math: "I can say, ‘James, wasn't that great that Keith came over to help you with math? He knows you're struggling. You also realize he loves soccer and gave up soccer practice to help you. And by the time he left, you knew your nine-times tables.'"
Modeling grateful behavior like this is important, especially when done in a way that goes beyond simply counting blessings or saying thank yous, adds Andrea Hussong, director of the Center for Developmental Science at the University of North Carolina.
She offers another example of walking children through the act of becoming aware of what someone gave them, what that means and how it makes them feel. "Look at what Aunt Dottie gave you! She didn't have to do that. She must really like you. Doesn't that feel good?"
Simply talking about gratitude might not be enough for kids, and the effort needs to be consistent.
"We find that children are more grateful if their parents seek out activities and experiences for them with the goal of cultivating gratitude," Hussong says. "And importantly, be patient. Children are learning this skill too."
Looking ahead to the holiday season, putting less emphasis on things can go a long way towards reducing nagging and boosting thankfulness, Froh's research suggests. Clear limits help, too. When you do buy your kids stuff, consider gifts that help them build stronger relationships, like a day of skiing with a good friend.
"When we are excessive in our giving, it increases the chances of our kids adopting material values," he says. "That is just absolute poison for gratitude."