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Helping Children Practice Gratitude; and the Science Behind It


The experts at Cerebelly and Slumberkins have teamed up to explain the brain science behind gratitude and how to support it through parenting and nutrition. Read on to learn more.

Perhaps you’ve just served dinner, and your preschooler comes to the table, wrinkles up her nose and states- “I’m not eating that.” Or perhaps it’s your toddler’s birthday party and they are opening presents left and right but they don’t even stop to thank the gift-giver. The moments when our children don’t show gratitude can be very triggering for us. We might begin to worry that they don’t appreciate what they have- will they be like this forever? Many of us want our children to experience and practice gratitude, but how can you teach gratitude? Is learning to say thank you enough? 

According to experts, gratitude is more than just saying thank you. It’s an emotion that people can experience or express that takes a complex set of social-emotional skills.1 In order to feel grateful, one must be able to notice something feels positive and then be able to attribute the ‘positive outcome’ to something outside of themselves.2 In other words, children need to be able to notice their own emotions, notice the actions, feelings or motivations of someone else, and reflect on the impact that person has on them. These are all complex skills that children often do not begin to utilize until 3-5 years old. So do we have to just wait until then to teach gratitude? It turns out we don’t-we can start supporting foundational development from day one. There are ways to support your baby, little kid and big kid’s brain development through parenting strategies and nutrition. Read for tips about how to support children’s cognitive development and the development of gratitude through various ages and stages.

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Babies Learn Gratitude Too

According to Stacey Segal MSc,RD, a Pediatric Dietitian who specializes in Neurosciences, the first 1000 days of life are a crucial period of time for brain development. During the first year of life, different regions of the brain are rapidly growing in form and function, although not all at the same time. This means not only is your baby’s brain gradually getting bigger, remarkably it’s also creating pathways for brain cells to communicate with one another. This is HARD work; AND it makes the brain ‘hungry! In fact, each region of your infant’s brain, as it develops, needs (craves, even!) specific nutrients for support.  

Although your baby will likely not be thanking you for their diaper changes or meals, they are developing the key areas of the brain that will be responsible for feeling and expressing gratitude later on. Your baby will also be watching you carefully as they learn about the world around them. This is an important time to be modeling and practicing gratitude, and sharing gratitude with your baby. Here are some simple tips to help your baby build a foundation that will help them experience gratitude later on. 

Parenting Tip: Tell your baby you are grateful for them: Expressing gratitude regularly at home, with your baby can help model the feeling and language around the emotion. Receiving gratitude is a great first step to later on being able to express it. You can try reading books about gratitude, or even start a regular routine around sharing gratitude daily that your baby can observe. Making this a regular part of family culture has been shown to increase the chances that a child will be able to practice gratitude themselves later on.3 

Nutrition Tip 1: Offer iron-rich foods and a variety of vegetables/legumes.  

As you venture into offering solid food to your baby, try to focus on foods that are rich in iron and the other key nutrients that are important for supporting development of brain regions responsible for social, emotional and visual learning.4 Veggies and legumes are jam packed with so many of these important nutrients. Some of these key nutrients are vitamin A, lutein, copper, zinc and protein. When it comes to offering food to babies, it’s easy to get stuck on a few singular foods they seem to like. But try to focus on ‘variety’ because this is how they will receive adequate balanced nutrition. 

Nutrition Tip 2: Don’t be afraid to let feeding get messy and FUN 

Mealtimes, for babies and adults alike, should be a relaxed and enjoyable experience. Think of your own feelings of gratitude when presented with a gorgeous meal or a delicious slice of warm apple pie. Our feelings of gratitude are absolutely connected to our food. Babies can begin to experience this same feeling, IF we facilitate this atmosphere. It’s okay to let them get a little messy, this is one way they learn. Back to the ‘nutrition tip’, try spoon feeding a nutrient dense food, like Cerebelly purees, during the meal they are ‘exploring’. A ‘nutrient dense’ food describes a food that has a meaningful amount of nutrients per spoonful.  

Helping Little Kids Explore Gratitude

Brain development and social-skill development are still growing at a rapid pace in the years after your child is a baby. Little kids, ages 2 to 5 are going through major shifts developmentally as well. According to Kelly Oriard, the therapist behind the brand at Slumberkins, “social development becomes increasingly important as children grow.” Little kids are learning a lot about their feelings, the feelings of other people. Language development is very important during this timeframe as well and learning how to communicate is a big part of being able to communicate gratitude later on as well. Try to remember at this phase that your child is still learning about other people’s perspectives, feelings and needs. Helping them name, welcome and express all feelings-not just the grateful ones will set them up for success later in life. 

Parenting Tip: Build a Feelings Vocabulary. During this developmental phase we recommend helping your child build a feelings vocabulary. Help your child regularly by labeling and talking about all feelings. Don’t get too worried about your child not expressing gratitude yet. You can begin to build those practices, but welcoming ALL feelings will help a child better understand themselves, regulate their emotions and make space for gratitude to grow. Towards the later preschool years you can begin to help your little one explore other people’s perspectives. Help your little one learn that other people may have different thoughts, feelings or perspectives than us. This ability to understand others is directly tied to gratitude and the ability to express gratitude to others. 

Nutrition Tip: Fill in nutritional gaps. The toddler and preschool years are filled with changes. Not only are children learning to communicate and follow your lead, they are also becoming more independent. This means that it is common for caregivers to have a harder time overseeing all the foods their children eat. Toddlers also have most likely stopped drinking breast milk and formula. This is the recipe for nutritional gaps to occur. Two nutrients that we see lacking in children’s diet at this age are: omega 3 DHA and vitamin E. These two nutrients happen to also be important for brain development in toddlers. Try to focus on offering foods that contain these nutrients every week. Foods like salmon, eggs enriched with omega 3 DHA, sunflower seed butter, dark leafy greens. Cerebelly purees are an easy way to get both these nutrients. 

Big Kids can Practice Gratitude 

When children get a little older, they are more likely to be able to fully understand the concept of gratitude and can even express it spontaneously. As we mentioned earlier- true gratitude is more than just a thank-you. Children can learn to just say thank you-but actually feeling and expressing gratitude is a little different. Research shows that people who practice gratitude can actually become better at it over time3. The brain at this stage of development continues to get better and better at recognizing social norms, building language and communication skills, engaging in problem solving skills and exploring new perspectives.  According to Stacey Segal, Pediatric Dietitian with Cerebelly, nutrition continues to be very important as kids get older. Feeding a developing mind means getting enough protein, fat and overall calories, because their brain uses a huge amount of the body’s energy consumption. 

Parenting Tip: Play a game to practice gratitude.  When kids hit this developmental stage, they are really ready to start participating in a gratitude practice. If this has already been a part of your daily routine then your child is probably already well on their way to practice this.  Try some activities or games that promote gratitude- kids learn through play to try to make it fun. Slumberkins has some free gratitude resources and activities on their website for you to try as a family. Try to remember that no one can be “perfectly grateful” all the time. Your big kid is still learning to regulate their emotions, and working to understand. Helping welcome those unpleasant feeling emotions can ultimately help them feel supported and ready to welcome the pleasant ones.  We can’t teach our kids to feel something, but we can help them notice and name those feelings. One way to do this with children is to help them notice their body. When you suspect your child is having a positive feeling, ask them how their body feels. Do they feel warmth in their heart? A light feeling in their head? Recognizing body cues is something we often learn to ignore as we get older. Teaching our kids to notice these sensations can help them notice gratitude when the feeling is present. 

Nutrition Tip:  Let your big kid help you with food prep. As kids get a bit older, they can spend more time focused on a task. Invite your child to help you in the kitchen for meal prep. This is a game changer for a few reasons: 1. You can use this time to talk briefly about where the food grows and how it’s harvested or what’s in season. 2. Touch on what amazing things food can do for their body and brain. (ie. These beans have protein which helps your muscles and brain grow). 3. You can also ask them which foods they like and why. All these mini conversations foster gratitude for the food we are lucky enough to have and will ultimately result in your kids making healthy food choices for years to come.  

It may not happen overnight, but with nutrition that supports brain development, modeling and encouragement your children can learn to notice and practice gratitude. The benefits of practicing gratitude go further than just having a polite child, gratitude can lead to increased happiness, and satisfaction in life among other positive outcomes.5 If you’d like to learn more about how Cerebelly creates foods that optimize brain health and development for children check out their resources here. If you’d like to learn more about the resources and books Slumberkins has to support families exploring and sharing gratitude, check out our Gratitude Collection 

Sources: 

  1. Hussong, Andra. “What Parents Neglect To Teach About Gratitude.” Parenting and Family. 21 November, 2017. Read More
  2. Allen, Summer. “The Science of Gratitude.” Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. May, 2018Read More.
  3. The Neuroscience of Gratitude.” Positive Psychology. 9 April 2019. Read More.
  4. Prado E. et al. Nutrition and Brain Development in Early Life. Nutrition Reviews, Volume 72, Issue 4, 1 April 2014, Pages 267–284, Read More.
  5. “Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier”. Harvard Health Publishing. 14 August, 2021. Read More.

Sarah Block
Licensed Professional Counselor 

Stacey Segal
MSc RD, Pediatric Dietitian