Teaching Your Child Gratitude

Our behavioral health experts, Dr. Reo Newring and Dr. Tony Pesavento, offer tips on teaching your child gratitude.

Topic Breakdown

0:51 – What is gratitude?
2:17 – Introducing gratitude to young children
3:41 – Putting yourself in your child’s shoes
5:51 – Everyone wants to do better for their kids than their parents did for them
7:47 – Gratitude for the little things
9:36 – Dr. Newring’s big breakthrough
9:55 – Remembering the positives


Dr. Reo Newring: I am Dr. Reo Newring. I’m a psychologist over at Children’s Behavioral Health. And then this is my comrade in words…

Dr. Newring: Tony Pesavento: Dr. Tony Pesavento. I’m one of the psychiatrists here at Children’s Behavioral Health. Thanks for joining us today. And we’re going to talk about an interesting and really timely topic, and that’s gratitude. And gratitude in kids, and how to teach gratitude to kids.

What is gratitude?

Dr. Pesavento: But before we go too far, I’m going to ask my esteemed colleague — give us an idea of what do you think of when you think of gratitude? What does gratitude mean to you?

Dr. Newring: For me, gratitude isn’t just being grateful — it’s being aware of what we have. What we have, the needs that we have that are being met, the wants we have that are being met. And having perspective, rather than sticking on “what I don’t have,” or “what I wish I had.” That’s kind of where it sticks for me.

Dr. Pesavento: I think that’s really a good point. When I think of gratitude, I really like what you said about the idea of focusing on “what I have,” as opposed to, “the things I don’t.” And I think that that’s a real — and I don’t want to say simple — a concept that adults can do well. Adults have a great ability to, for the most part, look at other people and be able to understand other people’s struggles, or look at other people and say, “Man, that person’s got it better than me, but that might be just right now. Or that might be them just okay with that.” Not something that’s as easily understood by kids.

Dr. Newring: No, for sure. They get so stuck on — “fair” is a huge word that I hear all the time. “I have this, they have that. They got to stay up this late.” Whatever.

Introducing gratitude to young children

Dr. Newring: And Tony, you’ve got a really little kid?

Dr. Pesavento: I do.

Dr. Newring: How do you deal with gratitude with that?

Dr. Pesavento: Oh my gosh. Once I found out, I’ll let you know. I think the thing I — that we’re starting to introduce to my son who is two and a half — is the concept of even just saying, “thank you.” And I think that the concept of “please and thank you” — just in terms of recognizing that something is done for you, or something is given to you. The idea of even recognizing that. And the idea that, “This is a special enough occasion that I need to make a gesture to recognize it” is almost the first step in being grateful. It’s something that seems so simple to you and me.

But if you think about it, saying “thank you” is a gesture that we do when we are appreciative of something and are grateful for it. So I think just even working with my son about having a clue that this is something we should do, that if I’m given something that I want or I need, I can still make an acknowledgment of that.

Dr. Newring: Right, and prompting with the kid. “Remember to say, ‘thank you.’” or, “Hey, did you notice that your friend did this for you. That was really nice of them.” Sometimes I’ll just describe the situation in a very sly way.

Putting yourself in your child’s shoes

Dr. Pesavento: Yeah. When you’ve got — let’s say you’re in your very busy clinic and a parent says that, “My kid is struggling with the idea of being grateful.” Or they might even use the word “selfish,” or “Don’t they appreciate what I’m doing for them?” And that’s a feeling that every parent has, right?

Dr. Newring: Yes, absolutely.

Dr. Pesavento: How do you work with parents to understand that? What advice do you give parents for that?

Dr. Newring: Right. It is so — it is so hard, because the need of the kid is to, you know, understand the world from their perspective. And the need of the parent is the same, except from their perspective.

Usually with parents, I’m trying to get them to remember — this is a kid. You have to learn what gratitude is, and over time, you get better at remembering to thank people. And internalizing the thinking and the gratitude, and the thinking about what you should be grateful for. But it doesn’t come automatically. It’s not natural. And it’s not really fair for parents to hold against their children what they do for them.

But I see a lot of teenagers, so that’s a conversation we have a lot.

Dr. Pesavento: Yeah, that was the thing I was thinking of, is the proverbial, “Don’t they know who pays the bills around here?” – type thing, that we all feel. That me, myself, as a parent, I feel all the time. “Ughh, if they only knew how hard this is, if they only knew what we did for them.” It can be just — it’s easy to lose track of that. But they’re not there yet. Kids aren’t at that level yet. And they’re just trying to get their needs met.

Dr. Newring: The other thing that I do as a parent is I try really hard to just be aware of when I’m grateful or when I should be grateful. If we’re sitting around at dinner and we’re all together, I’m going to say something — well, on my good nights — about, “It is so nice to be able to sit all together like this.” Just sort of pointing out, like, “Hey, here’s something we could be grateful for.”

Everyone wants to do better for their kids than their parents did for them

Dr. Pesavento: Yeah. When you look at kids and the idea — when they’re struggling with the idea of being grateful, and that leads to parents frustrated, and then that leads to the kid being frustrated with the parent…it kind of leads to this whole…convoluted mess and anger and frustration. What is something that you often tell parents to — how do you get parents to take a step back and gain that bigger perspective?

Dr. Newring: That’s a little bit of a hard question. I think the first thing that every parent I’ve ever met resonates with is this idea that we’re trying to do better than our parents did. Because that immediately clicks them into, “Oh right, what did my parents do for me?” as opposed to, “What am I doing for my kid?” And then thinking about it, “What are my kids going to do for their kids?” and, “What kind of spoiling am I going to get to do of the grandbabies?” No, I’m just kidding.

Thinking about that generational process of, we really want to do better for our kids than our parents did for us. Fundamentally, that’s a human thing, and remembering that.

Dr. Pesavento: I think that’s a fantastic point, is the idea of not losing yourself in that moment in time where you are. And looking at the bigger picture of, “Somebody did this for me, too. Somebody paid my bills a long time ago, too. When I was 10 years old, I couldn’t provide for myself. I couldn’t do all of those things. So how is it fair to expect this other person to do this?”

Dr. Newring: And that’s not why we do it. We don’t pay the bills so that our kids will say, “thank you.” We pay the bills so that our kids will be able to grow up the best they can, in this very uncertain world.

Gratitude for the little things

Dr. Pesavento: I think that brings up an interesting point about some of the things we do that even maybe we should be a little more grateful for ourselves. Like, my wife, for example, pays the bills around our house. The lights are on, so obviously she’s doing it. I don’t probably say “thank you” enough for that. I don’t say “thank you” for doing the little things that get done every day in order to make life run.

Dr. Newring: Absolutely. Just remember — again, that awareness all the time of what you could be grateful for. And nobody has ever — I think in the history of time — gotten in trouble for saying “thank you” too much. That’s just not going to happen. So the more you do, the better it is.

Dr. Pesavento: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that that goes even beyond — I think that goes even beyond kids. And being adults — I think about our roles, in terms of being mental health providers and being able to reach out to this community of Omaha. I think that’s something that I’m grateful for, is the ability to do that. Sometimes, I have to remind myself, and that helps me see the kids that I’m treating in a different light, is the fact that I should be even grateful for — I am grateful for — the interaction that I have with them on a daily basis.

Dr. Newring: Right, no, absolutely. And we have jobs, and I’m so grateful for that. And, you know, we’re fabulous people, and we work in a fabulous department. I’m grateful for that. All of it. You know, thinking about — the holidays are coming up. I think about what each of my family members has done for me as a parent, and teaching me about gratitude.

Dr. Newring’s big breakthrough

One of my uncles is the one that taught me that I really need to say, “thank you,” and that was a thing when I was 13. But I haven’t said anything to him. I think I need to call him tonight.

Dr. Pesavento: There you go! You made a breakthrough on the Children’s podcast on that.

Dr. Newring: Excellent.

Remembering the positives

Dr. Pesavento: Kind of to wrap up — when we’re thinking about being grateful just in general, and with parenting and with kids — is there any other advice or thoughts you have about how parents can either think about being grateful, or use the concept of “grateful” in order to benefit their kids in any way?

Dr. Newring: I think just — it’s so important to — any time you ever have a chance, especially if you’ve got a negative emotion going on, take a big deep breath, and stop and think. What are you grateful for? I mean, you’re never going to go wrong remembering how many things are going your way and how many things are not problems right now. You’re always going to feel better for doing that.

Dr. Pesavento: I love it. That’s going to improve not only your mental health, but the mental health of those around you, is being…

Dr. Newring: And modeling that.

Dr. Pesavento: Yes, absolutely. Well, I certainly am grateful for the time that I got to spend with you today.

Dr. Newring: As am I, thank you.

Dr. Pesavento: Thanks so much for joining us today, and we hope that everyone enjoys it and takes away a little something from it.


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