On Christmas morning, as children hurriedly open their holiday gifts one after another, many will only pause long enough to display gratitude for the gifts they really want, as other presents only solicit a requisite smile or “thank you,” if any emotion at all.
The authenticity of a child’s gratitude may be hard to measure during the season of giving since many children may be more interested in the gifts and goodies of the season rather than who’s responsible for providing those gifts and goodies, according to Giacomo Bono, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH). And due to the “very limited” research and understanding of gratitude in children, some psychologists believe it is non-existent in kids 6 years old and younger.
However, according to the book “Making Grateful Kids: the Science of Building Character,” which was written by Bono and Jeffrey Froh, an associate professor at Hofstra University, even very young children can be grateful, particularly when it’s taught and nurtured.
“Researchers were suggesting that—considering how seldom children display gratitude—it’s something that is slow to develop,” said Bono, who added that the lack of research was a significant reason they wrote the book. “Seven to 10 years of age is when many scholars think it begins to develop, but we found through our experiences and research that there are glimpses of genuine gratitude even in toddlers as young as 3 years old.”
Written after years of study and using data featured in numerous journal articles they have published, “Making Grateful Kids” introduces the professors’ latest research, “groundbreaking findings,” and real-life stories from adults and youth to show parents, teachers, mentors and kids how to achieve greater life satisfaction through gratitude.
“Ultimately gratitude is about finding the meaning in the things people do,” said Bono, who believes that gratitude in all people is broadly connected to the development of meaning. “We each have a story, and we converse and share our experiences. It’s about tuning in to others’ ideal stories, and seeing something in them that is essential to their stories, and then helping them bring that out. “
To encourage more gratitude in children, Bono believes it is important for parents and caregivers to understand their “curiosities and interests.”
“If you can relate to them and tune in, then you’re likely to be more supportive and show you’re paying attention to them and what they want,” he said. “Very young children see that, but they also see when their parents are too busy to play, and when they’re not getting that special attention that they yearn for. When you do give them that one-on-one time, and talk about thing things they really want to talk about, then they open up to you.”
Bono is also a strong proponent of authoritative parenting and discipline: setting limits, reasoning with kids, and being responsive to their emotional needs.
Gratitude supports autonomy development and becoming your own person. – Giacomo Bono
“Authoritative is different than authoritarian—‘Do it because I said so!’ That tends to be bad. Gratitude supports autonomy development and becoming your own person,” said Bono. “Being authoritative is being both challenging and supportive: you show warmth, but you also provide some structure. Learning how to practice this with your children is important. Respect your children, not as adults, but as full human beings, with the potential to change the world.”
To help encourage and teach gratitude in school and to expand their research, Bono recently received a $1.3 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, as part of a larger grant with University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, to develop a gratitude curriculum for 4th- through 12th-grade classrooms. Many of the techniques can also be applied at home by parents.
The program, which is already being administered by teachers, first measures the character traits of the students by teaching them to understand the meaning behind behaviors, particularly kindness.
The program’s main exercises teach students about “benefit appraisals,” which are the social perceptions that individuals use in appreciating kind actions from others, according to Bono. The first appraisal, the personal value of the gift, teaches a child to recognize and understand when someone improves his or her life in some way, which is the easiest appraisal to develop in kids. The second appraisal teaches awareness of the cost to the benefactor—“how he or she has gone out of the way to do something for that child, or even gave something up,” Bono explained.
The third appraisal is acknowledging the “pro-social intention” of the benefactor.
“The benefactor had an altruistic motive—their focus was on you and you exclusively because they saw something special in you,” said Bono. “This is a big one, and a good for teachers who use the gratitude curriculum because it helps the teachers and their students to better understand each other, and better connect. And generally, the more teachers personalize the lessons, the better.”
In today’s “high-distraction society,” the amount of commercialism and type of information that children are exposed to makes it harder for them to “stay true to themselves,” their values and to their character strengths, such as courage, kindness, or humor, according to Bono.
“Staying authentic is something that is getting more challenging for young people. They’re likely to question who they are and what they want out of life because they’re consistently seeing what other people are ‘supposed to have.’ It’s a challenge, even for adults, but especially complicated for kids because they’re identities are still developing” he said.
There is also evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, which includes a sense of entitlement. Most often, such negative personality traits will persist into adulthood, said Bono.
“When you talk to professors on any campus you’ll find that it’s not uncommon to have students who think they deserve an ‘A’ without putting in the hard work. Or students may think they deserve some exception because they had some stressful or challenging event in their lives, and should have the rules bent just for them, as if nobody else endures similar challenges, too. A sense of entitlement tends to be an obstacle in gratitude because it tweaks their perceptions,” he said. “Gratitude is about when things turn out good and you weren’t really expecting it to happen that way. It is not about deserving to have good things happen to you.”
“Developing gratitude early on in life is not only important because it makes people more cooperative, which is key in today’s world, but it also helps motivate people to make the most of other people’s investments in us,” Bono Added. “Gratitude may truly be the gift that keeps giving in life.”