The Parent's Guide to Helping the Younger Generation Feel More Grateful

While it can feel like your child has way more than you did when you were little, how do you make sure they still show appreciation? Use these strategies to help kids understand there’s more to giving thanks than just saying the word.

boy and girl carrying box and bag of food donations
Photo: Priscilla Gragg

Raise your hand if you’ve ever started a sentence with the phrase “When I was growing up, we didn’t have ...” as a way to instill a sense of gratefulness in your kids. Same! As a first-generation immigrant, I saw my parents endure hardships to provide my brother and me with a better life. That’s why we never took anything for granted. We knew full well that our Puerto Rican dad was exhausted every night after walking miles as a meter reader just to put food on the table and that our Cuban mom performed magic to make every dollar stretch at the supermarket. So whenever my boys, Auggie, 8, and Luca, 5, ask for new LEGO bricks—despite dozens of pieces lying around the house—or complain that there’s nothing good to stream on TV, I can’t help but worry that they won’t have the same level of appreciation that was ingrained in me as a kid.

It’s a concern—and a valid one—that many parents like myself share. “As each new generation in America becomes more acculturated, they lose the awareness of ancestral struggles,” says Nicole Rojas, Psy.D., a Cuban-American child and adolescent psychologist in Miami. “And that built-in gratitude, which many of us grew up with, begins to wane.”

But if there ever was a time to teach being thankful for all the good in life, it’s now. Research shows that it can protect people against depression and anxiety and help them bounce back from difficult situations by boosting their resiliency and inner strength—all characteristics you want to develop early on. In fact, experts say you can start working on gratitude from ages 2 or 3 and on. The trick is letting little ones take the lead. “Avoid pointing out blessings for them,” says Dr. Rojas. “Instead, use open-ended questions to get them thinking, such as, ‘What was the best thing you did today?’ or ‘What made you smile?’”

And if the answer is mac ’n’ cheese? That’s OK! Helping children find happiness in the small stuff takes practice, practice, practice. Thankfully, your kid has the perfect coach.

Keep Family Stories Alive

Even if your child didn’t witness the enormous sacrifices of previous generations, they can still find motivation in those hard times. A study from Emory University found that children who are familiar with intergenerational stories show higher levels of emotional well-being compared with kids who are not. “Sharing your family’s history helps children feel gratitude for their loved ones and the life they’re living today,” says Dr. Rojas. “It also proves to kids they can overcome obstacles just like those who came before them.”

But be sure these tales don’t turn into lectures. “Let the conversations come up organically. No need to remind them on a daily basis how bad you or your parents had it. That can make them feel as if their problems aren’t as important,” Dr. Rojas says. “For example, avoid saying, ‘My life was tougher than yours, so you should be grateful.’” Rather, when your kid shows interest in your childhood or their grandparents, use it as an opportunity to explain how life was different “back in the day.” That’s what Nicaraguan mom Denisse Montalvan, in Los Angeles, does: “My 3-year-old daughter, Nova, and I have regular video chats with my dad for storytime. He tells Nova about his journey crossing the U.S. border at 18 to pursue his love of baseball, and he constantly reminds her that she should never give up on her dreams.”

little girl with hands in heart shape over her eye
Priscilla Gragg

Have a Little Fun

Turn thankfulness into a habit—not homework—with a little help from various activities. “Saying out loud what brings you joy, writing it down, or even painting it engages the mind, giving kids a more memorable experience that they’re likelier to want to repeat,” says Dr. Rojas.

Make it a family affair by going around the dinner table and sharing “highs and lows” of the day, she recommends. At Thanksgiving, have everyone jot down or draw their blessings on slips of paper that can be pulled out of a jar throughout the meal. Then ask kids to guess who wrote what.

It’s about being creative and staying consistent, as Jennifer Macias Taylor, an Ecuadorian-American mom in Brooklyn, New York, can attest. Every evening, she sends her kids, Hudson, 5, and Aria, 22 months, off to sleep in a positive mood. “We pray and go over everything that made us glad, like a verbal gratitude journal,” she says. “My 5-year-old looks forward to it, and if I forget one night, he always reminds me!”

Spread Some Love

Only when kids are aware of the larger world around them will they appreciate their own little part of it, says Harley Rotbart, M.D., a pediatrician and parenting expert in Denver and author of No Regrets Parenting. Giving back can be an effective way to demonstrate how fortunate your family is to (for instance) have enough toys that you can donate some to children in need. And the best part: Demonstrating generosity can be a real mood lifter.

Montalvan, who regularly sends gently used clothing and shoes to orphanages in Latin America, includes her daughter, Nova, in those efforts. Nova even has a special pink storage box in her room to collect donations. “We purposely don’t put items in garbage bags because I don’t want her to think other children deserve our trash,” says Montalvan. “I show Nova photos of the kids wearing clothes that were once hers so she understands the impact of her actions. It makes her excited to give away items she has outgrown.” That’s because “when children see for themselves how donations are put to use, they have more empathy, which helps them in turn be content with what they already have,” Dr. Rojas says.

Say “Thank You” Often

Gratitude can be an abstract concept for children, so the best way to bring it to life is by making it a part of your own routine. Because kids are always watching and listening, this can take many forms and simply be part of your day-to-day conversations with your child, according to Dr. Rotbart. You might say, “Let’s remember to tell Grandma how much we loved her cookies” or “Can you believe we got inside just before it started to pour?” And be sure to acknowledge your children after they complete a task or do something kind for another person, Dr. Rotbart advises.

Just choose your words: Rather than saying, “I’m so grateful” or “I’m blessed,” use language they’re familiar with, such as, “I’m so lucky that ...” or “It makes me really happy when ...” That way, you’re meeting them where they are developmentally, Dr. Rojas explains.

And while finding the good in 2020 might seem like a stretch, it’s important to seek out and create everyday moments to celebrate with kids. “You want to remind children that even in tough times, there can be moments of happiness,” says Dr. Rojas. You know, firsthand, it just requires a shift in perspective.

A version of this article originally appeared in Parents Latina's October/November 2020 issue as “Cultivate Everyday Gratitude.”

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