Teaching Kids Gratitude and Empathy Year-Long

Gratitude and empathy every dayHappy Thanksgiving! Whether you had your turkey yesterday, or (like us) yours is delayed until today to accommodate friends and family, this is a time to give thanks for the good in our lives and to think about the plight of others who may be less fortunate. It is also a time when many of us parents reflect on how well our kids are developing the skills of gratitude and empathy. These are important skills year-round as they play critical roles in personal happiness, prosocial behavior and emotional intelligence or EQ.

Based on my reflection this week, we have some work to do in our house on both gratitude and empathy. Most days our son complains about his classes and the other kids at school, and focuses on the negative that happened. One bad experience can “ruin” a whole day. He also recently complained about “tension in the house” (among his parents) – but couldn’t seem to understand our situation and how his recent behavior issues (e.g. not getting his homework done on time, not doing what he’s told in a timely manner, arguing with us on almost every request – ah, the joys of tween-dom!) contributed to said tension. Don’t get me wrong, Elliott is generally a happy and sweet kid, but he’s definitely not seeing enough of the bright side of life these days. However, based on my conversations with other parents of kids his age at recent sports events, we aren’t alone in this experience. Why is it so hard to help kids, especially in the tween and teen phases, learn gratitude and empathy?

Well, first of all these skills require a life-long learning process. Who among us adults couldn’t express more gratitude and empathy? But for our kids it’s an even bigger challenge since the frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for higher-order thinking processes – including empathy (which requires imagining and understanding another’s perspective) – isn’t fully developed until young adulthood, about age 25. This is also partly why kids and teens are more impulsive and have trouble considering the consequences of their actions.

So what can we do in the face of this biological reality? Well, practice now can help kids maximize their cognitive abilities, and lay the foundation for future development:

  • Model it – demonstrating gratitude and empathy ourselves is one of the best ways to teach kids these skills. Try to talk about the positive things in your day before mentioning the negative. When discussing issue with someone in your life, make sure to speak about the other person’s perspective and what they might be experiencing.
  • Emphasize the positive – one of the best ways to cultivate a focus on the positive is to keep a gratitude journal, listing 3 things at the end of the day – whether big or small – that were good. Or you can make this a part of the discussion over family dinners. One thing I do with Elliott is ask him to tell me both the good and bad that happened during his school day. Once he’s done a more balanced assessment, most days are getting at least an “OK” rating.
  • Build a warm connectionstudies have shown that connection and warmth between parent and child, developed at the youngest ages, result in greater empathy as children grow. Spend time with your small children, mimic their experiences, and demonstrate your love and affection.
  • Show empathy to your kids – when they are feeling down or talking about the bad things that happened, it’s important to fully acknowledge their experience and feelings. But then it can help to ask them what they learned from the situation, what they might do differently, or what another involved might be feeling.
  • Celebrate the successes – recently our son helped out a kid at school who was upset over a bullying incident, and was very affected by this boy’s experience. We really emphasized to him how proud we were of his actions and his concern for another person. Hopefully this will encourage more of this type of behavior in future.

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited twenty-year old. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global oncology education programs as well as by her twenty-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a founding member of the PedSafe Team


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