Fostering an Attitude of Gratitude

By Jeff Devens, High School Personal Academic Counselor, Singapore American School.

Linda didn’t know what to expect. This was her first time living outside of Canada, and at age 15, volunteering for her first service trip was the first time she’d ever volunteered for anything. Growing up in affluence hadn’t prepared her for what she was about to encounter—poverty, homelessness, hunger, and heartache. Part of the reason her parents took an international assignment was to expose her to the painful realities others face. Her parents were first-generation out of poverty, and while Linda found the stories of their childhood experiences interesting, she hadn’t internalized them. The service trip wasn’t an attempt to make her feel guilty; it was intended to foster in Linda an attitude of gratitude. 

For the next week, she and her family helped build homes—but not the kind found in her native Toronto. These homes consisted of four cement pillars, six feet off the ground to prevent flooding, with walls and a roof made of tin. The entire structure was little more than three square meters. The families receiving the homes were grateful, offering fruits, wicker crafts, and other small items as tokens of gratitude. 

What began as a single service trip 10 years ago turned into Linda’s career. After finishing her studies at university, she decided that working in developing countries was what she enjoyed most. Interestingly, this was more than her parents had bargained for. “They encouraged me to reach out to others in need but hadn’t anticipated I would turn this into a career. Strangely,” Linda continued, “I’m now teaching them about service and gratitude.” 

In addition to teaching kids right from wrong, parents are also responsible for cultivating gratitude. A friend and colleague who raised two grateful kids reminded me of this after a not-so- grateful experience at the park with my children, then four and seven years old. They whined about the long drive, complained about riding bikes in the heat, and sulked when they didn’t get a can of soda. Their ungrateful attitudes persisted throughout the entire excursion. By the time we returned home, I was grateful they could spend some time alone—in their rooms! To be fair, I owned half the problem. I wasn’t doing my part to remind, reinforce, and teach them how to be grateful. I had wrongly assumed being grateful was something that occurs naturally, not something I’d have to instruct, rehearse, and model. My friend’s timely advice was a reminder that we had work to do. 

In my work with parents, I often use the following baseball analogy to help them understand what it means to cultivate gratitude. Many children are born on third base. They are somewhat delusional, however, because they think they hit a triple to get there. Their estimations of themselves and their abilities, achievements, and accomplishments are such that they believe they have earned their positional status in life. Sometimes, instead of being grateful, they have an attitude of entitlement, which, left unchecked, can lead to narcissism. The catch for parents is, if our kids are ungrateful, it may have more to do with what we’ve been teaching them than with how well they perceive they can swing a bat. 

Suggestions for fostering gratitude:

Express It Gratitude isn’t gratitude if it’s not expressed in word or deed. In this regard, the smallest word or deed is better than the grandest of intentions. When we assume others know how we feel about them or believe others should do their work out of responsibility but don’t express our thankfulness for what they’ve done, we lack gratitude. 

A former coworker resigned from a position where he had served with excellence for 17 years. He was and is among the best of the best at what he does, yet he felt unappreciated and undervalued. With few words of affirmation and even fewer expressions of gratitude from those in leadership, he came to see himself as a cog in the wheel of a large organization. His decision to leave, in large part, was the result of not feeling valued by those charged with overseeing his work. 

Gratitude manifests itself through generosity. In other words, gratitude isn’t gratitude until it’s expressed. Thinking of being grateful toward another and not expressing it is a form of ungratefulness. An occasional word of thanks, some verbal recognition, a simple gift commemorating a milestone—these are small but significant investments in the lives of those you live and work with. This relates to family and friends as well as coworkers or employees. 

Be Intentional Gratitude isn’t something that develops intrinsically. It must be coached, rehearsed, and put into practice. It may seem inauthentic to say to your child, “What do you say when someone gives you something, lends you a hand, waits for you, collects your dishes, takes you someplace, plays catch, goes for a walk, drives you to and from practice, or opens a door for you?” Initially, gratitude is inauthentic because children mimic behaviors long before they internalize them. When you prompt a thankful response, you are coaching them. Gratitude comes with repetition, rehearsal, and revision. And like a muscle, it must be exercised to grow. 

Provide Real-Life Examples Sharing experiences that helped you develop a grateful heart, recounting stories of other grateful people, and providing opportunities to express gratitude are but a few ways parents can provide life examples. 

On a practical note, if you have a helper, maid, or hired worker in the home, do your kids see that person as a servant or as a fellow human being with dignity and worth? How you treat those who serve your family will clearly model gratitude (or entitlement) to your children. Domestic helpers play a significant part in many international homes. I know of a family who demonstrated their appreciation for their helper by financing and building a home for her in her native country. For several years, they provided funding for this project and even traveled to her home to help with construction. Their children experienced firsthand what life was like for someone they have a strong affection for, who was perhaps not as privileged as they were. Even after heading off to university, the kids remain in contact with her through social media. 

Avoid Keeping Score When a grateful person realizes what they have, the desire to share often follows. That generosity then breeds more gratitude. Gratitude and generosity should not be a score-keeping sport, however. Broadcasting your own good deeds does not encourage others to respond in grateful ways, but it does expose the giver’s prideful heart. Generosity can feel wonderful when others acknowledge it, but recognition should not be the primary motivator behind it. 

Gratitude manifests itself in many ways. Some give financially, others give of their time, some use their talents to express it (making a thank you card or writing a poem), and some use a combination of ways. One isn’t better than the others. The question is, what’s the attitude of the heart? 

Frequently asked questions:

When we grew up, we were poor by many standards. We worked hard, earned our way through school, and provided for our family. Our children didn’t have to endure this.
They didn’t experience the cost, but they are experiencing the benefits. Without using guilt, how can we help our kids recognize the cost of what we went through and value hard work, sacrifice, and grit? 

Parents can guilt kids into just about anything, including service, but gratitude in this form is short-lived. Sadly, the form and flavor many conversations take when speaking of gratitude is guilt (i.e., you should be glad you’re not poor; you have food on your plate and a room of your own). Our charge isn’t to make our kids feel bad for their lot in life. Rather, it’s to help them, in loving and caring ways, understand the sacrifices parents and others have had to make to provide this better life. This is heavy lifting but necessary work. It will require proactive intentional behaviors focusing on routine. Thanking someone for something they do, saying please and thank you, having responsibilities in the home, and yes, even serving others outside the family—these are ways to foster gratitude. And as I mentioned earlier, sharing stories from your life or others’ lives is a wonderful way to illustrate what form gratitude can take. 

We take a service trip once a year as a family. Do you think this is a good thing for fostering gratitude? 

Service trips are excellent opportunities for families to demonstrate gratitude. These trips are also powerful ways to bring different people together to serve the needs of those less fortunate; however, they shouldn’t be our primary form of expressing gratitude. It’s like asking if exercising once a month will get me in shape. A feeling
of euphoria or an endorphin rush might occur, but those are short-lived. We need consistent, daily opportunities to express gratitude for it to grow. Again, service trips are great, and I strongly support them, but not as a primary means of teaching or expressing gratitude. 

Any suggestions for expressing gratitude more frequently? 

The most practical place to express gratitude is in the home. Look for ways to demonstrate a thankful heart toward family members. Maybe it’s thanking your spouse/partner for something they do on a regular basis, or a child for completing a chore without being prompted. One could argue family members are just doing what’s expected of them, and we needn’t thank them simply for fulfilling their role as a member of the family. I wouldn’t argue with this assertion, but I’ve found saying “Thank You” goes a long way in communicating your feelings with those closest to you. 

Recognition of an act of service, even those that seem mundane, will be appreciated. When was the last time you took a few moments to thank your partner, specifically and genuinely, for the things they do to support you, the kids,
 and the family? Try this and see what happens. Authenticity and gratitude are great foundations for any relationship.