Brandman News

5 ways to teach your kids gratitude

December 03, 2018 by Victoria Lim

Teaching empathyA challenge for parents during the holidays can be raising their children to be giving and grateful … while being bombarded with commercials, ads, sale signs and big bows on cars. If your kids are chanting “I want that” with almost everything they see, Brandman University social work Assistant Professor Catherine Pearlman, Ph.D., LCSW says it’s to be expected.

“Advertisers are paying big dollars to get their attention, and it’s working,” Pearlman says. “Realize it’s normal for them to ask for something they see. It’s exciting, shiny, new and their friends have it. It’s normal. Don’t be angry for kids wanting those things.”

But that doesn’t mean you can’t still give the gift of gratitude to your children. In fact, Pearlman emphasizes it has to be learned.

“Parents should realize it’s normal for kids not to be born with being grateful or thankful. When they only see what’s around them, what’s in their community – they don’t see anything different. You might say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ but they don’t know what it means,” she says.

The path to learning gratitude is through learning empathy – understanding the feelings of others. Pearlman says it can be difficult for children to appreciate what others are going through if they can’t picture it.

She recalls an exercise she did with her own children, looking up the percentage of students in their schools who receive free lunch, and talking about how it would feel to not have enough food or money to make a lunch from home – how it feels to be hungry while trying to concentrate on a test or mustering the energy for after-school sports.

“If you can’t imagine what it’s like to go without presents or food, you can’t imagine someone having something different,” she says

Here are five other ways you can teach them about gratitude:

Take a family trip

Whether outside your neighborhood or to another country, take them somewhere different. Look around. Explore. Experience. Talk to your kids about how you live and how that is different.

Model gratitude

How often do adults talk about or show their own gratitude? “We look to our kids to do something that we don’t often do ourselves,” Pearlman says. Make sure your children hear you say, “Thank you.” Have them see you write thank-you notes or help others when they’re down. Pearlman calls it a “peek behind the curtain.”

Talk about money

Too often we shield our kids from the stress and burdens of finances. But how will they understand what something costs or the value of it? Instead of buying them the toy they want, tell them they can buy it themselves out of their allowance. When they understand something costs too much money versus simply being told that it’s expensive, it sticks.


“Agencies are inundated with people interested in volunteering this time of year. Honestly, that’s terrific, but those agencies need help all year round,” Pearlman says. Take the family to a soup kitchen at meal time that can open up a later conversation about families who don’t have enough food.  Or take them somewhere they can see someone in need so they realize they can do something to help – and they do. It’ll make them feel good and they’ll want to do it more.

Year-round thanks

The holiday tradition of going around the table talking about what we’re all thankful for is certainly a window into what our children are thinking. But why do it only once a year? Pearlman recommends making it a weekly practice before they go to bed. Or getting in the habit of writing down something they’re thankful for each day.

Adapted from a Brandman University Facebook Live Chat with Dr. Catherine Pearlman, LCSW. Watch here.

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