How to Help Gratitude Grow

Recently, one of my friends was venting about her teenage daughter being “so ungrateful!” She asked me, “How can she not know how much she has?” This mom isn’t alone. Parents hope (or expect!) that their children will grow up to be grateful. In a recent study, Amy Halberstadt and colleagues found that parents get peeved when their children don’t show gratitude. As one parent said, “I can be embarrassed as a parent, I can feel angry at [my child] that he hasn’t sufficiently conveyed gratitude when I thought he should.”

But how does gratitude develop? How early do kids start to feel and express it?

One 2013 study aimed to discover the foundations of young children’s understanding of gratitude. When children were three and four years old, the researchers measured their emotion knowledge and perspective-taking through a variety of tasks and questions in the laboratory. When children were five years old, the researchers tested how much they understood the positive feelings of being grateful and the reciprocity it might inspire.

Researchers found that the more a five-year-old understood the concept, the more they had understood emotions and other people’s perspectives when they were three years old. In other words, children’s early emotional awareness and perspective-taking ability may underpin their later development of gratitude.

A 2018 study of seven- to 14-year-olds across Brazil, China, Guatemala, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, and the United States explored how children’s development of gratitude differs across cultures. In most cultures, expressions of “concrete gratitude” decreased as children got older. Concrete gratitude is when children offer something in repayment that is valuable to themselves rather than the other person, like giving a toy to a parent.

Older children were more likely to express “connective gratitude” than younger children in the United States, China, and Russia. Connective gratitude is considered to be a more advanced type of gratitude, when children offer something that is meaningful to another person in return—for example, a child giving a friend a teddy bear that the friend has long wished for. Connective gratitude more fully takes into account another person’s thoughts and feelings, compared to concrete gratitude or verbal gratitude (such as saying “thank you”).