Teaching Gratitude and Giving

Teaching Gratitude and Giving

Child development experts share suggestions for helping children develop a sense of altruism.


Lessons on gratitude and giving during the holidays should be age-appropriate, say psychologists.

“The best thing a parent can do to promote altruistic behavior is to model the behavior themselves.” —Jessica McLaughlin, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, Montgomery College

When teaching their three young children about gratitude and benevolence, Marcus Rosano and his life Laura began with what they consider the basics: treating others with kindness.

“After leaving a sports practice, we tell them to go back and say, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank-you’ to their coach,” he said. “My wife and I have focused on the way we treat others. Part of kindness is understanding that there are people in our community who can’t afford presents at Christmas and who aren’t going to have a Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings.”

The Rosanos’ method of instruction is an effective one, according to researchers who say that parents are their children’s most influential teachers. “The best thing a parent can do to promote altruistic behavior is to model the behavior themselves,” said Jessica McLaughlin, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Montgomery College. “Kids imitate their parents and they are more likely to engage in altruistic behavior if we show them how to treat others with kindness and empathy.”

Parents can choose to partake in simple, random acts of kindness, while they are with their children, added Joanne Bagshaw, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Montgomery College. “For example, paying for someone in line behind you in the grocery store, or helping an elderly person carry their grocery bags to the car, or helping a neighbor shovel snow or clear ice from their walkway.”

Use that opportunity to initiate a dialogue, continued Bagshaw. “Then afterwards, talk with your child about how it made you feel to help someone else. Through that discussion, brainstorm with your child how it might have made the person you helped feel. [This will] help develop empathy in your child.”

“I would suggest that parents discuss with kids what circumstances other kids and families may be in over the holidays and how it may differ from their own,” said child psychologist Stacie Isenberg, Psy.D, “For example, there are families who have limited food and those who rely on shelters. They could also discuss ways to acknowledge and express gratitude for specific things they have, from food to heat to their personal belongings, like saying something from their day that they are grateful for; not just at Thanksgiving dinner, but every day at dinner or before bed.”

It is important that parents tailor their dialogue and lessons on gratitude and altruism to a child’s age and level of development, advises Linda Gulyn, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Marymount University.

“Preschool-aged kids need to see the immediate and tangible effects of helping and giving to others,” she said. “For example, ‘See how much grandpa likes it when you help him carry the holiday decorations?’ Or ‘Because you shared your train tracks, now [your playmate] can get his train over the hill.’ “

School-aged children learn best by seeing the social benefits and being part of group activities associated with giving and helping, suggests Gulyn. “[This is] because peers and people outside immediate family are more interesting to them,” she said. “For example the Girl Scout troop helped the elderly people decorate the senior living rec center.”

Teenaged children, on the other hand, are idealistic and interested in social justice issues, says Gulyn. “They care about pop culture, too.” said said. “My teens enjoyed shopping for holiday gifts for other kids who were socioeconomically disadvantaged. They bought sports team gear for fellow teen boys. “

Identify issues that are important to a child and provide opportunities for them practice altruism around those topics, suggests Carolyn Cass Lorente, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Northern Virginia Community College. “For instance if your child is interested in animals you might help them collect old towels and blankets in the neighborhood to take to a shelter,” she said. “This helps build a sense of agency and responsibility and shows them that we each can make a difference.”

“During the holidays, parents should share their family histories and traditions and note their good fortune in living today with many daily comforts and conveniences that their grandparents did not have,” said Short, Ph.D., professor of psychology at George Mason University. “Gift giving encourages empathy and perspective-taking to consider what others might like and it brings people closer together.”