How to teach your kids gratitude in 4 steps

4 tips for teaching kids gratitude

When my kids get home from school this afternoon, they will walk into the apartment to find two frilly gift bags. Before we reach the door I will play up the surprise: Something is waiting for you! What can it be?

Each gift will contain a new supply of underwear.

They both need new chonies. When I was a kid, we didn't just “get” stuff — even stuff we needed. Not even underpants. Everything was purchased with intention: as part of a biannual clothes purchase for which there was a strict allowance; for holidays or birthdays; or with money saved from allowances and part-time jobs.

I don't see a lot of that kind of conscious spending today. Somehow in one generation we've become marathon shoppers: Our purchases are so frequent and abundant that it has spurred a whole new industry of professional organizers, chains like The Container Store and, yes, even feng shui experts. Maybe we can blame access to consumer credit, or being vulnerable to celebrity media coverage. But what I see is a lot of waste, and not a lot of gratitude.

Gratitude is a big deal with me. I might even say it is the foundation of my spiritual life. In fact, there is lots of scientific research that proves gratitude is a powerful force in finding happiness. I believe that, and take steps each day to teach that to my children.

How I know gratitude works

When I was at the peak of my personal crisis a few years ago — contending with a brain-injured husband, the care of a toddler, pregnancy and the dissolution of my marriage (and not to be mistaken for a humblebrag: I also developed chronic hives and suffered two root canals around then), I turned to gratitude to get me through. For a whole year my friend Jen and I exchanged Thank You Gratitudedaily gratitude emails. Jen was going through her own crisis, and to lift our spirits and focus on the positive — which is abundant, but hard to see when you are in so much pain — we freestyle typed whatever small and large things that we were grateful for: A funny thing my kid said, Jen's support from a colleague, a delicious peach, the ability to walk.

Now that I am out of that crisis zone it can be hard to stay so focused on my riches and slip into focusing on petty frustrations and first-world problems: that my apartment is desperate need of a paint job and I can't find the energy or time to hire someone else to paint it, for example. But to impart this critical life tool on my children, I make an exercise of teaching them to be grateful for what they have, including new undies.

Here are a few more gratitude exercises I use with my kids:

4 tips to teach kids gratitude

Have your kids share what you're grateful for every day

Several nights each week as I'm tucking them into bed, we each say a few things that we are grateful for — a practice that has come be know as “saywhatwe'regratefulfor.” This includes whatever the sharer wants to say: his health, people in our family, friends, that we have enough money to be comfortable, a safe home, nice neighbors. I learned that children can and want to participate at a very young age. When Lucas was 2, I did not yet invite him to do saywhatwe'regratefulfor, but apparently he overheard me and his sister, two years older with whom he shares a bedroom. One day at breakfast, this wee toddler turned to me and said, “Mommy, I grateful for YOU!”

Say our favorite thing that happened that day.

This is a little different from the above. We usually do it at dinner time, and I think of it more a part of learning to be good, considerate conversationalists. Again, kids are rarely too small for this: from a very young age both my children would melt my heart when they'd ask, “What did you do today, Mommy?”

Casually mention what I am grateful for.

When we hear about the horrors of Syria on the morning radio, I might say, “I feel so lucky we live in a peaceful place.” Or when we walk by the glorious fruit market, I will comment, “This is such a luxury to have all this good food!”

Make a big deal out of special things.

You are not entitled to dessert after every meal. You do not get stuff just because you see it in a gumball dispenser at the grocery store, or even if your Spiderman underpants are so small the elastic gives you a rash. Make it clear that getting stuff is special. New Hello Kitty panties are a celebration.

Live frugally and mindfully.

I recently wrote a post at DailyWorth entitled “Why I love my cupboards bare,” exploring the thrill I get to know that I've used up every last drop of shampoo, or consumed all the goods in my fridge. I get a nearly-spiritual high from knowing I got my money's worth — and little was wasted. Such frugal living is an act of gratitude. Not a whole lot you can single-handedly do about our disgusting consumer culture that promotes uncontrolled spending, hoarding and overall waste. But you can control your own actions. If you buy with intention, thrift and care, your kids will pick up on that and eventually do the same.


How do you teach your kids gratitude? How do you express your own gratitude? Share in the comments!

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Dynamo Di on September 27, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    What a beautiful practice to encourage your children in from a young age. That’s building such good habits. They will have a wonderful life :D

    • Emma on October 2, 2013 at 5:24 pm

      I’d like to think so …. thanks Di!

      • Camille Johnson on November 27, 2014 at 1:18 pm

        You are SUCH a good mom!

  2. Richard on September 27, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    Great ideas… this is something I really want to work on when my daughter is old enough to understand. In addition to all the benefits you mentioned, a little gratitude could help them in their future relationships!

    • Emma on October 2, 2013 at 5:25 pm

      Like I wrote in the post, you will be surprised at how much she understands at a young age. Start now!

  3. Meg on September 30, 2013 at 10:05 am

    Great ideas! I love finding ways to help my children develop their own practice of gratitude…it is the key to being happy.

  4. Brooke on November 27, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Thank you for this! With my son being 4, this isn’t the easiest concept for him to grasp. We have been having lots of conversations about others having less than us and that being happy doesn’t mean having lots of things or toys but having people and friends in our lives and giving to others when we have more than they do. The “I wants” are still there and he is a very loving, giving child but still a child in today’s “give me” society. These are definitely things I need to work on doing more along with a lot of other things and curbing the best I can what others give him or give into him when he asks. Have a wonderful and grateful Thanksgiving!

  5. Emma on November 27, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Thanks Brooke – Like I wrote in this post, I was shocked at how much my then-2yo grasped this concept. A little effort on your part goes a long way – I’ll bet your covos are sinking in more than you realize. Good on you!

  6. Seanna on December 3, 2013 at 10:18 am

    I asked my two year old son what he was thankful for on Thanksgiving, expecting him to say “pickles” which is his usual answer for hard questions. He said “my home, my mommy.” I was so stunned that he got it and proud.

    • Emma on December 3, 2013 at 10:21 am

      Seanna, that is the best story I heard all day!!! Thanks for sharing.

      FWIW, the other day the kids and I were doing our bedtime gratitude deal, and Helena, 5, included “insurance” and “knuckles” in her list.

      • moneystepper on November 28, 2014 at 6:10 am

        Haha – knuckles are completely under-appreciated!

  7. moneystepper on November 28, 2014 at 6:09 am

    Absolutely agree – we should take time out every day to be thankful and grateful for the things/people we have in our lives and this is a hugely important trait to pass onto children.

  8. Geraldine Ang on November 24, 2016 at 11:46 am

    Lovely post Emma. I’m grateful for a good life – it’s not perfect but it’s good. I’m grateful for a healthy child who loves me like I love her. Im grateful for peace in this part of the world. I’m grateful for the inner strength that’s helped me leave a bad situation. And I’m grateful for friends and family who have taught me about myself and given me different perspectives on this wonderful thing called life.

  9. Eva on November 24, 2016 at 1:44 pm

    I think gratitude is great. I didn’t formalize the process of being grateful with my kids. But I would say it at random times during the day. My son is 12 and it’s hard to get him to do it. But I will try. I most need it for myself. Thanks for your inspiring words Emma

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