Gratitude Is Good for the Heart: Teaching Kids the Value of Giving Thanks

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11-21-gratitude“Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.” (A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh)

Today I read a letter that came in the mail from one of our granddaughters. She thanked us for attending a special occasion for her birthday. As I looked at the scrawled handwriting and the misshapen hearts at the side, it brought a smile to my face and a tug in my chest. And did I ever feel gratitude for her? Absolutely! Strange as it might sound, I felt a stronger bond with her as well.

So what is so great about an attitude of gratitude? Well for one thing, our granddaughter’s gratitude increased a sense of gratitude in me. I promptly sent a thank- you text message back to her parents for teaching their kids to be grateful.

Many kids are taught about being grateful. After police officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas were shot and killed, kids from Tulsa’s Eastwood Baptist Church summer camp in Oklahoma emptied out their pockets and piggy banks to make 157 candy bags to thank their city’s police officers for their service.

Another example of expressing service and gratitude happened when 2,500 kids from around the world drew cutouts of their hands and wrote what kind things they had done for a grateful person. They flooded Friend magazine’s mailbags with their paper hands. It started a wave of gratitude and service that spread.

Gratitude is the Siamese twin of service. They are intimately connected at the heart. You would think that the person who receives the service or gift is the one who benefits most. Not so fast. The giver receives the biggest boost of satisfaction.

According to Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, gratitude is good for us. New research has proven that showing gratitude releases a naturally occurring hormone called oxytocin. Often called the “love drug,” oxytocin encourages bonding, maternal instinct, friendship, marriage, and love. Wow!

We just feel good when we show gratitude. It is good for our health and our relationships. If that is not enough, studies also show that people who express gratitude feel more peaceful, have less stress, and even have stronger immune systems. What a bargain for a little gratitude!

So how can we help children, students, ourselves, and others around us develop greater gratitude and enjoy the loving boost of oxytocin?

For one thing, we can resist the urge to flood children with presents and opportunities to receive everything they want. To increase their gratitude and a feeling of self-confidence, we can require children to do chores for some of the things they want.

Richard Rende, a developmental psychologist, coauthored a book entitled Raising Can-Do Kids. He discusses data showing that children perform better academically, emotionally, and professionally if they do chores in their homes. It helps to correct the “gimme-gimme” syndrome. We can let kids see that privileges don’t just “poof” out of the air. Privileges require work. We can teach children to be grateful for all those brave people—both in our country and in our families—who worked hard before us and provided us with many blessings and benefits.

A defining example of gratitude comes from the family of 14-year-old Katelyn Zimmerman from Inverness, Florida, who was hit and killed by a drunk driver while riding her bike. Katelyn’s grandmother, Charlene Sweigart, knew of her granddaughter’s great love for life and gratitude for all she had. Charlene also heard Katelyn’s last words. Three hours before the accident, Katelyn had told her grandmother that she wanted to be an organ donor.

Ironically, that came true as her heart was rushed to a young boy named Alj. Alj and his family had almost given up hope that he would ever receive a heart. But the match fit. Later, the families met. Katelyn’s heart lived on inside another teenager. Alj shared a letter of gratitude that he had written to his unknown benefactor: “Thank you for a second chance at life. There were times when I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t walk without breath. I needed a miracle.” He wrote: “Katelyn, thank you for being my miracle.”

Nothing appears to improve gratitude more than helping someone else. It doesn’t have to be formal volunteering or donating an organ—but simply helping those in need in our families and communities. It also involves thanking those around us who assist us. It will help our hearts hold a “rather large amount of gratitude,” and it has been rumored to increase their sizes as well.

Yes, gratitude can be taught! Here are a few suggestions:

  • Set an example of gratitude for those around you. Say “thank you” to everyone who serves you—in the market, at work, at school, at home, wherever. Recognize the good that people do. It can snowball.
  • As the holidays approach, make wish lists of items to give to other people instead of gifts for ourselves. Teach children and teens to be grateful for their heritage, freedom, family, food, shelter, and those who came before them who secured their blessings.
  • Encourage kids to write down the good things that happen to them each day. Keep a gratitude jar in your home or classroom. Discuss grateful moments around the dinner table or at school and discuss experiences in expressing gratitude.
  • Send thank-you messages. Write to people to thank them for simple acts of kindness. To thank those who are not nearby, especially young children, use Skype or FaceTime. Or how about making a selfie thank-you message?
  • Make cookies or other treats and take them to someone to thank him or her.
  • Decorate the house, classroom, or office with sticky notes thanking others for their good services and kind actions. Keep plenty of sticky note pads around for kids to add their own. (Of course this kind of experience requires some clean-up time.)
  • Volunteer. Nothing improves gratitude more than helping someone else.

Most importantly, let’s all remember to thank those around us—children and adults—who offer their love, service, help, and forgiveness.