"Raising Happiness" author Christine Carter talks about teaching children to be grateful

Dec 20, 2012

Gratitude is an art, and something that children need to be taught. Sociologist Christine Carter took questions on how to teach your children to be grateful during the holidays and beyond.

Hi, everyone, and thanks so much for joining us today. I'm thrilled to have Christine Carter, the author of "Raising Happiness" and the blog of the same name, joining us to take your questions. Christine was very helpful to me in writing the cover story for this week's Local Living. She has lots of great tips for teaching children to be grateful, just in time for the holidays. Let's get started!

“Abundance can be had simply by consciously receiving what has already been given.” —Sufi Saying

As a “happiness expert” (as I’m sometimes called), people often ask me, “If you had to pick just one thing that could make me happier right now, what would it be?”

I believe gratitude is the foundation of personal happiness—and a community’s happiness as well, as the two aren’t easily separated.

If we want to be happy, and to raise happy kids, we need to practice gratitude— deliberately, and consistently, or we may end up feeling more entitled than appreciative.

When we feel entitled, we often stew about unfulfilled expectations. Entitlement makes us more likely to feel disappointed when we don’t get what we think we want, rather than grateful when we receive something.

Disappointment is not a happiness habit. Gratitude is.

Habit being the key word: We need to establish rituals and traditions that make feeling and expressing gratitude habitual. Here are three of my favorite gratitude practices.

1. For holiday meals, we appreciate each other by writing on our dinner table place cards. The kids make giant construction paper placecards for each guest, and as people arrive and mingle, we each take some time to sit down at the table and write on the inside of each place card something that we love or appreciate about them. 

2. Several times a week, I take a photograph of something I find beautiful or inspiring, or something for which I feel grateful. Often, I just take the photo with my phone, and usually it never gets shared.

3. Everyday, I ask my kids about three good things. They might share good things that happened to them that day, or good things they did themselves, or even something good that hasn’t happened yet that they are anticipating. For example: “One good thing today is that in two days we get to go to Chico to see Grammy & Grampa Snuggles and our cousins!” They are counting their blessings.

We do this practice in all different circumstances. Sometimes it’s while snuggled in bed. Sometimes, when I have a speaking engagement at night, we do it after school, on the couch. Sometimes it’s over the phone if they’re at their dad’s house. But no matter the situation, their first good thing is always “right now.” This reminds me to be present and recognize that this particular “right now” is worthy of great gratitude.

In addition to stirring up feelings of gratitude (while curbing a sense of entitlement), all of these practices evoke the positive emotions that make us feel deeply satisfied with our lives.

The first practice makes us feel loved, and helps us express the love we have for others.

The second makes me feel awe and elevation, because I’m usually photographing something beautiful in nature. I will also often also feel love if there is, say, a child in the picture. And sometimes I just feel awash in contentment and peace—or creativity and inspiration—as I take the photograph.

The third practice can evoke a full range of positive emotions: anticipation and excitement (about something coming up); kindness and compassion (for someone they did a “good thing” for); straight-up relived happiness (recounting a fun time at recess).

All of these practices evoke the abundance that is all around us, even in these challenging times. As the Sufi saying above acknowledges, they help us receive the many gifts that are already out there.

What are your family’s favorite gratitude practices?

Here is a link to today's story about having a grateful child. And here is a post I wrote for On Parenting about gratitude in my own home.

I have young children who I fear are becoming overly entitled. What are your thoughts on ways to introduce gratitude to spoiled kids in a way that feels natural.

It's never too late! Often times greed around gifts hits such an all time high -- or I guess we should say low -- that it inspires change not just for the holidays, but for the whole year.

As far as what feels natural: it might not feel natural if kids are really spoiled and entitled, it might feel pretty foreign. But finding a regular gratitude practice (relevant to their age) is important! And it should feel pretty good to them, eventually. Entitlement doesn't feel good; gratitude does.

Last Christmas at my grandkids (ages 4, 6 and 7 this year) was a frenzied greedfest at its worst! Sigh. Is there anything a grandmother can do to help lessen the feeding frenzy when Christmas morning is spent at their house?

YES! Help your children and grandchildren develop Christmas traditions that don't have anything to do with gifts. Maybe you make YOUR grandmother's cookies Christmas Eve morning, or you go for a Christmas morning hike. Our family has a tradition of telling jokes at Christmas dinner -- those are the things that kids remember and come to really cherish year after year.

Hello, we are new parents to children who were previously immersed in an ungrateful and untruthful environment. They saw and heard lots of jealous, ungrateful, and spiteful things. We are trying to "reboot" their spirits to get them to focus on gratitude and graciousness. We feel it will bring them such peace and position them to eventually free themselves from past hurts through forgiveness. Any suggestions? They are both in elementary school.

I think you are right on: a regular gratitude practice will likely lift their spirits and help them heal. Be patient: gratitude is a skill that it can take time to develop. So you might not see a dramatic "reboot" as much as a gradual increase in their satisfaction with life. Maybe start with the 3 good things practice I wrote about in the opening remarks.

Do you have any thoughts on constructive ways to redirect the whine parties? I loved Mari-Jane's blog post today - it really resonated with me when she talked about whining during a dinner you specifically prepared for them. It takes everything I have not to get emotional and pouty myself. How would you redirect that behavior quickly? Note: I imagine age matters, my three are 6 and under .

A lot of it is pre-emption, and helping reframe things for kids. We pre-empt complaints at dinner by starting each meal by either naming one thing we are grateful for or one kind thing that someone else did for us that day.

Reframing helps kids see how obnoxious their complaints are. The trick is to reframe in a way that is relevant to THEIR lives, not ours. So saying "their are starving children in Africa" doesn't work for kids unless they actually know starving children in Africa. Try something like this: "I worked really hard to make this dinner, and I even considered what you would like. It's kind of like when you worked really hard on that painting you made for my birthday, and you really thought about what I would like. What if I said, 'Yuck! I don't like this painting!'. And then explain that we sometime eat things that aren't our favorites.

That's what I think the problem is with a lot of kids today. They feel that they are "owed" lots of presents and that they should never lose on the sports field. Always praising kids for every little thing they do, whether deserved or not, makes children feel that they are entitled to everything they have. To be happy, one has to feel that they earned praise or gifts, etc. That's to raise happy kids, in my opinion.

I agree. It is very important not to praise kids in a global way "you are such a great athlete!" or all the time, because you are right -- they get very entitled. Instead, we can praise specific effort (e.g., You did great today! I could really tell that you've been practicing your layups a lot!). Kids don't tend to be entitled when they perceive their success or happiness as coming from their own effort.

What are some of your favorite service projects or volunteer ideas for children in elementary school? I'd love to get my kids involved in helping others.

See what is available in your area. The closer you can be to the actual people you are helping, the better. Some of my favorite service projects are from bigheartedfamilies.org. I love the "care kits" project.

The polite thing to do is to write thank you letters. I don't remember how many times my parents made me write thank you letters to my grandparents after they sent me gifts or money for my birthday, Christmas, or other special events. A letter might show that you are thankful (although, maybe not if forced) but even that is not the same as being grateful.

I think it is really important to teach kids to EXPRESS gratitude for a wide range of things, not just the material stuff they get. Writing gratitude letters to thank teachers or mentors for their care and support can be an incredibly powerful experience.

How exactly does a parent or a teacher instruct kids to be grateful? At what age or stage of development in a kid's life should that happen--when a kid can start talking in complete sentences? Or, if they know how to talk in complete sentences, by say 7 or 8, they know how to say the words "Thanks" or "Thank You?" But if you teach kids how to express gratitude, how come many adults are unable to express these sentiments?

I think adults who are unable to express gratitude were probably not taught how to do this, and probably have never practiced it. It's a skill that can be taught VERY early on, through modeling first, and then as kids are old enough to talk, by being encouraged to express their feelings of appreciation. 

The blog post today mentioned trying to intercept American Girl catalogs, and that parents need to keep paddling against the marketers. What kinds of things can parents do to fight the messages their children are getting from advertisements, and even more, from their peers? How can you convince your children that they don't NEED that doll?

Well, they don't call it "neuro-marketing" for nothing! As kids get older, we can explain to kids that when they see something that they want--especially if it is presented by an advertiser in a really appealing way--their brain chemistry actually changes a little bit to make them feel like they will be much happier if they had that thing. So they can start to say to themselves "That advertiser is really making me want that American girl doll."  

As parents, we really can't convince kids they don't want/need something if they really, actually, do want it. The dopamine rush that creates craving is very real. But we can steer them towards the things that actually DO make them happier. 

One more tip: If you want a kid to stop wanting something, don't say he or she can't have it. Making something "forbidden fruit" makes it more appealing and intensifies the craving. Instead, say "I understand that you really want that doll! We aren't going to buy it right now, but maybe someday."


What do you think about the "Want, Need, Wear, Read" philosophy of gift-giving at Christmas?

Tell me more about this -- I haven't heard of it but am interested.

Our child (age 10) goes to school with children of all income levels. Her focus tends to be on the material wealth of classmates who clearly have more disposable income than we have. (We live comfortably.) We remind her that there will always be those who have more and others who have less than she has, and a sure-fire way to unhappiness is to focus on what she doesn't have. We've tried variations of the three good things (or even the best and worst things that happened that day) with limited success. Can you describe any other techniques?

One size definitely doesn't fit all with gratitude practices, but a 10 year old is old enough to be able to design her own. I'll publish some links with more ideas, but start by asking her to design your family's gratitude practice. And stick with a practice: you might not see instant success. There will be good days and bad days. But over time, a regular, predictable, totally routine gratitude practice will actually change the way children (and adults!) perceive the world.

My son's birthday is the day after Christmas, which means two days of presents (my husband and I are both only children and my son is the only grandchild, so this means LOTS of presents). How can we avoid a general feeling of excess with his birthday right on the heels of Christmas and help engage a sense gratitude as he gets older? BTW, I plan to ask him to help me with choosing a donation for Heifer International--I think that will engage his imagination.

I also have a child with an almost-Christmas birthday. We've gotten around it by having her design really amazing service birthday parties, where everyone brings things for kids in need, or where they do a treasure hunt of good deeds/small kind acts. It is really fun, and perfect to do around Christmas since there is such an abundance of (and focus on) ways to help others.

How can parents tweak the obligatory thank-you note to make it something their children really put thought and effort into, and WANT to do, instead of it being a chore?

I don't have a magic bullet on this one, and am wondering if others have ideas. The more you can make something play like (by introducting something challenging, or creative, or novel, or social) the less of a chore it will be. Last year, we let the kids use our phones to send video thank yous (which often included a video of them opening and trying on the gift). This was really fun for them, but I'm sure Emily Post wouldn't have been happy. The recipients loved their video thank yous, though, because they were very authentic and enthusiastic.

My daughter is 4.5, and sometimes it feels like nothing is ever enough for her. If I give her a marshmallow as a treat, she wants 5 marshmallows. If we spend 30 minutes playing a game, she demands that we play even longer. A t.v. show can only be half over before she's asking for another one. We've talked to her about being happy with what you have rather than always demanding more, and we do have defined limits (just one marshmallow, just one show, etc.) but clearly it's not working. Our family also works with several charities, and we get her involved whenever possible. Is this just her age, with the "I want more!" or is there something we could be doing to help her understand gratitude and be happy with what she has? I'm almost dreading Christmas morning when she's done opening her gifts and will ask if there's anything else.

It sounds like your daughter is more trained on what she lacks than on what she appreciates. It is not her age -- she probably won't just naturally grow out of it. This is often habitual, and quitting it is like quitting any bad habit: hard.

Neuroscience research leads us to believe that it is easier to change a bad habit into a good one than it is to "just quit it."

I suggest a 2 pronged approach:

(1) Involve her in activities that expose her to other people's suffering, so that she might feel compassion and a real authentic gratitude for all that she has.

(2) Ask her--every single time--that you think she is going to complaint or ask for more what she is thankful for in that moment, right then. See if you can pre-empt her complaint/begging for more. This way you'll be transforming the habit by the trigger (getting something she wants) to prompt grateful behavior rather than desire.


How do we teach children that they can live life happily in light of the recent tragedy in Newtown? I am torn apart by what happened, but I don't want my child to live in fear and sadness.

I am also torn and heartbroken. As Fred Rodgers said, teach kids to look for the helpers in this tragic situation, and more than that, teach them to BE one of the helpers. Enormous power and happiness comes from compassion. We should never pass up on joy, or compassion, or any positive emotions because we also feel sad or afraid: we can hold both positive and negative emotions, and kids can too. 

Maybe all the angry/disappointed parents and grandparents writing in about the spoiled children need to rethink their gratitude? They have living grandchildren and families after all which is something they could and should be grateful for. They are often children being children and need to be taught these happiness habits. It's not helpful to feel disappointed by them and call them names. This is something both the children and adults may need to learn.

Do you limit your children's holiday gifts? And if you didn't start that when they were babies, how can you do it when they are older without causing an uproar (or making them feel like Santa forgot them this year)?

Now that my children don't believe in Santa, I've changed my gift policy: they get one gift, and it is an experience (a first concert) or permission (e.g., to get her ears pierced). 

I wouldn't worry too much about fall-out from reducing the gift load. Minor dissapointment (from not getting "enough") is not scarring or traumatic. The larger lesson/experience of Christmas as being more than gifts is more important.

I find it odd that in this chat about teaching happiness all these questions seem to focus on the horrible/entitled/spoiled children they are surrounded by. Maybe they are not grateful for the positive aspects of these children? Maybe they haven't been taught gratitude because it seems the parents and adults are also focusing on what they are ungrateful for. It's something you have to teach, it won't happen overnight. I don't think the focus should be blaming or name calling the children that are not being modeled the behavior of gratitude in the first place.

I think that culturally we are raising a very entitled generation of children, and that isn't entirely parent's fault. Let's remember that the gift-getting-feeding-frenzy is one that is intentionally created by advertisers and marketers. We parents need to double-down on our efforts to counter the advertising campaigns, and general cultural orientation towards shopping.

That said, I think it is important to see that our children are acting spoiled and DO SOMETHING about it.

I've known couples who send adorable wedding thank you notes with photos of them using the gifts. I think turning it into a photo shoot of sorts could be fun for children.

Love this idea.

I am an auntie to some great kids who I don't get to see but a few times a year. Often I have been left feeling I am just the cash cow of presents, and after the gifts are unwrapped, they start whining to go home. It is hard not to feel used, but since they don't often get much else due to some problems with their parents, I do keep giving them gifts. SInce I only see them a few times a year, its hard to have a complex conversation about it.

Can you schedule more time with them that doesn't involve presents? A relationship can't be built on gift-giving alone, and since you are the adult, you'll need to build a more authentic relationship with them. Try outings that become traditions, that they can count on. You'll get to know them better, and they'll come to see you as an adult who is genuinely interested in them.

Original poster here. Thanks for the suggestions. How do you design this sort of treasure hunt? My son will be four, BTW, so I'm not expecting too much just yet; he's very good about saying "thank you" and we do write thank you notes.

Check out bigheartedfamilies.org. Ask your son (who, admittedly, is a bit young for this) who he wants to help. Present birthdays (all birthdays in your family) as opportunities to get other people to help him with a special project he designs. Maybe he wants to pick up trash on a beach he loves, or maybe he wants to visit the guide dog puppies...

We would bake all sorts of cookies and make up cookie trays to deliver to all the neighbors. It was so much fun and such a good lesson for a small child to go out and deliver.

Thanks everyone. We'll put up more resources at christinecarter.com.

In This Chat
Christine Carter
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a parent coach and the author of "Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents." She coaches and teaches online classes to help parents bring more joy into their own lives and the lives of their children, and she writes a blog for parents and couples. She is also a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.
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