Mother and child in nature looking happy.

Use the Four Parts of Gratitude to Help Kids Be More Grateful

Gratitude is more than saying an automatic ‘thank you.' Gratitude is a character strength that supports our most positive life experiences and it’s much more than good manners.

When I looked at how to teach gratitude to a child, beyond the basics of sending a thank you note, I learned that researchers at the Greater Good Institute have found that gratitude consists of four different parts. Nurturing all four parts of gratitude will help our kids more deeply experience and benefit from gratitude in their lives.

How Does Gratitude Benefit Kids?

The authors of Making Grateful Kids describe gratitude as part of a positive social cycle. It goes something like this: a child receives something positive (a gift, for instance). The child feels gratitude for the gift. Gratefulness makes them feel generous toward others, and they are more likely to give back. They receive gratitude for their generosity and feel they can make a positive impact on the world. Their confidence increases, and their willingness to work hard increases as they feel supported by and included in their community because of the gratitude they've experienced.

One of the times when kids are most likely to feel gratitude is when they've worked toward a self-chosen goal. When they achieve this goal they've worked hard for:

  • They will likely feel grateful to the people who helped them achieve this goal.
  • Feeling grateful makes them more likely to want to be generous to others (so that others can have this happy, grateful feeling as well).
  • The feeling of gratitude also increases their self-discipline as they decide they would like to experience this feeling again by achieving more of their goals.
  • And as they feel gratitude for others, they get better at recognizing the supporters in their community, allowing them to build stronger relationships with people likely to be able to help them again in the future

Gratefulness helps kids have more self control, generosity, self-worth, and happiness.

What Does It Mean to Be More Grateful?

  • People who are more grateful experience gratitude more frequently, intensely, and deeply (they feel gratitude for a wider variety of things and are able to notice more benefits from their experiences for which they're grateful).
  • When people have more gratitude, it allows them to experience happiness from positive events for a longer period of time.

Some people seem primed from the start to be more grateful than others. However, with a growth mindset everyone can increase their experiences of gratitude. A growth mindset says that our skills are not set in stone, and we can improve them through time and effort. To make that effort in your family, first you have to make a choice to make gratitude a priority. Then work on supporting the four parts of gratitude.

What Is Gratitude? Defining the Four Parts

We know that teaching kids gratitude is about more than just good manners, but what does that mean? Researchers have discovered that gratitude actually consists of four parts.

Raising Grateful Children Project – UNC Chapel Hill says gratitude conversations have the most impact when they include four things: Notice, Think, Feel, Do

  • First we NOTICE something in our lives for which we can be grateful

  • Second THINK and FEEL

    THINK about why we have the things we're grateful for and check in with our bodies to see how we FEEL

  • Finally we DO something to express appreciation 

We Can Help Kids Grow Their Gratitude

As parents, it’s helpful to know about all four of these parts of so we can encourage gratitude in our children that’s more than an automatic please and thank you. 

Younger children experience gratitude more simply than older kids. As they get older and their cognitive skills develop, they’re more likely to engage with all four parts. 

So while a toddler may simply feel excited when his aunt brings cookies, an older child might feel excited and also think about how thoughtful it was that his aunt remembered his favorite kind of cookie, and can understand that she brought him cookies to express her love. His gratitude is thereby deepened as he can understand more about it. The toddler might say thank you out of prompting or habit. The older child may say thank you out of truly feeling that gratitude.

Here are some simple ways to teach gratitude to a child through your conversations. There are gratitude prompts for each of the four parts:

  • Notice: Awareness is the first step! Get in the habit of noticing happy or beautiful moments. State these out loud.
  • Think: Ask questions that help your child think about their gratitude. For instance, if they receive a gift these gratitude questions might be things like, “Why do you think you received this gift?” “What do you think they were trying to show you by giving you this gift?”
  • Feel: Start conversations about how gratitude feels. “Where do you feel gratitude in your body?” “Do you think you can spot it when someone else feels grateful?”
  • Do: Encourage actions such as writing thank you cards, saying thank you, and volunteering to help others.

The nice part is that you can start very simply. Noticing is a powerful first step in gratitude, and just by introducing more conversations about gratitude, you’ll increase the noticing in your family. Our gratitude prompts are a fantastic way to start these conversations.

Author: Alissa Zorn

Title: Trauma-Informed Coach

Expertise: childhood emotional neglect, perfectionism, parenting, journaling, comics, doodling, coaching

Alissa Zorn is the founder of OverthoughtThis.com. She's a trauma-informed coach and cartoonist passionate about helping people overcome perfectionism and shame to build authentic, joyful lives. Alissa has been featured on the Good Men Project, Wealth of Geeks, Motherly, MSN.com and more.