How to Teach Toddlers Gratitude

Gratitude is good for you.

It boosts optimism, builds stronger relationships, connects us to our community, and makes us feel good. It even benefits our mental health and changes our brains.

A gratitude practice for adults can look a myriad of different ways. But what does it look like for children?

The world can feel vast and overwhelming for a little one, filled with new experiences and emotions. As parents and caregivers, we strive to equip our babies and toddlers with the tools they need to navigate this complex journey. While concepts like gratitude might seem too complex for your little one, teaching your toddler gratitude by laying the groundwork early can cultivate a foundation for a happy and fulfilling life.

How to Teach Gratitude 

Gratitude, the act of appreciating what we have, goes beyond saying "thank you," but that’s a wonderful place to start! It's also a deeper understanding and appreciation for the positive aspects of life, fostering a sense of contentment, happiness, and well-being. Research suggests that nurturing gratitude in young children can have a positive impact on their overall development, leading to:

  • Increased happiness and well-being. Grateful children are more likely to feel happy, optimistic, and satisfied with their lives.
  • Enhanced social skills. Gratitude encourages empathy and appreciation for others, fostering positive relationships and cooperation.
  • Improved resilience: By focusing on the good, children develop coping mechanisms to deal with challenges and setbacks constructively.
  • Greater intrinsic motivation. Gratitude equips children with an internal drive to strive for goals and appreciate accomplishments, leading to increased focus and perseverance.
  • More connection. Caregivers and children who express gratitude to each other may feel more connected, bonded, and appreciative of one another.

Teaching Babies Gratitude (0-12 Months)

While babies might not grasp the full concept of gratitude, there are steps you can take to lay the groundwork for your child and make gratitude more of a given for yourself.

Positive Affirmations and Verbal Cues

Even though your baby might not yet be speaking, they understand the emotional tone of your voice. Express gratitude throughout your day, saying things like "Thank you for making me smile!" or "You make my life better, thank you!" This positive reinforcement creates a warm and loving environment, associating joy with verbal expressions. You’re also making expressing gratitude a normal part of the way that you speak to your child from the very beginning.

Focus on Daily Routines

Express thankfulness for the simple actions that your baby can do. Say "thank you" to your baby when they hand you a book, let you brush their teeth or hair, give you a ball, or break into a wide smile.

Say “Thank You” for Displays of Affection

As your baby learns to express love through kisses, cuddles, and hugs, say "thank you!" This is one of the first steps of teaching consent – that no one is owed their physical affection, even family.

Involve Other Family Members

Model gratitude towards the other family members in your household, or those who are a frequent part of your baby’s life. Tell those family members that you’d like them to also support your efforts in raising your baby with gratitude at the forefront. Make sure they know to actively say “thank you” to the child.

Teaching Toddlers Gratitude (12-36 Months)

As your toddler's language and understanding develop, you can evolve how you teach gratitude to your toddler.

Expand on Daily Expressions

Go beyond thanking your child directly and express gratitude for external factors. Say "I am thankful for the sunshine today!" during a walk or "Thank you for sharing your toys so nicely with your friend." This helps them understand that gratitude extends beyond oneself and encompasses the world around them.

Read Books About Thankfulness and Gratitude

Introduce age-appropriate board books with stories that explore themes of gratitude and sharing, providing gentle introductions to the concept of gratitude and spark conversations about its importance. Check out some of these titles for inspiration:

  1. The Thankful Book by Todd Parr
  2. Bear Says Thanks by Karma Wilson
  3. Llama Llama Gives Thanks by Anna Dewdney
  4. Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora
  5. We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell

Give Gentle Reminders

As your child starts to say “thank you” more regularly, you can give gentle reminders to help them remember to say “thank you.” For example, you can say, “Grandma just gave you a cookie. What should you say to her?”

Reward Good Behavior

Create a "Thank You Basket" filled with safe objects like small toys or stickers. After a positive interaction, like sharing with a friend or helping you with a simple household task, let your toddler choose something from the basket. You’re reinforcing positive behavior and establishing the connection between positive experiences and receiving a token of appreciation, and the good feelings associated with gratitude.

Praise Thankfulness

Another way to reinforce prosocial behavior is to verbally praise your child. Tell your child how good they’re doing! After your child says, “thank you” by themselves, say, “Great job remembering to say ‘thank you’!” 

Talk About the Feeling

As your child’s understanding of thankfulness grows, you can share how it makes you feel to help your child realize the good feelings they can inspire through helping, as well as model the behavior for them.

  • “Thank you for helping me clean up the toys! It makes me feel appreciated.”
  • “Thank you for walking on your own to the car. I like knowing you can do it yourself.”
  • “Thank you for making this drawing just for me! It makes me feel special when you share your art with me.”
  • Thank you for putting your clothes in the hamper. You are doing a good job at keeping your room tidy.”

What You Can Do as a Family to Teach Gratitude

Gratitude can be a natural part of the way your family communicates with each other. And in turn, you’ll gather the benefits of expressing more thankfulness to the people around you. As you teach your children to be thankful, you’ll find it’s very easy to integrate it into your own life. You’re already doing it!

Model Gratitude

Children are keen observers, learning by watching and mimicking the behavior of adults around them. Make expressing gratitude a part of your daily life, thanking others for their kindness, helpfulness, and presence. 

Say “You’re Welcome”

As your child begins to say “thank you,” themselves, respond with “you’re welcome” to acknowledge their effort. 

Start a Gratitude Practice

As your toddler grows, you can start a gratitude practice as part of your bedtime routine. After bathtime and storytime, ask your child, “What are three things you were grateful for today?” Listen to theirs, share yours, and end the practice with a warm hug. Creating a safe, shared space for expressing gratitude within your nightly routine reinforces its importance within your family.

Consistency is Key

Repetition reinforces these early concepts. Consistently express gratitude in your daily interactions, even for small things. Before you know it, gratitude will be a natural way that you and your child speak to each other and family members.

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