Is teenage gratitude an oxymoron?

Christine Carter may be one of the most qualified people on the planet to answer this question.

For two decades, the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and a senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center has been thinking, teaching, and writing about the extraordinary benefits of cultivating a life of gratitude.

There’s more. Carter just so happens to have four — oh yes, four — teenagers currently living under her roof, ages 14, 15, 16, and 17. She’s not just talking the teenage gratitude talk to other parents; she’s living it, times four, at home.

From the moment her daughters could sit at the table and put together a sentence, Carter initiated a dinnertime practice of having each family member say what they were grateful for. After remarrying someone with two kids of his own, Carter has diligently kept the gratitude bubble aloft, doing her best to ensure that the four teens steer as clear as possible away from a sense of entitlement and plunge themselves into feeling grateful for what they have, rather than focusing on what they don’t.

“I tolerate a lot of eye-rolling,” admits Carter, who says that although she practices what she preaches, teens are tough customers when it comes to buying what she is selling: the idea that being authentically grateful for their lives and the gifts they have been given will make them happier. Sometimes they will tune out, or openly resist, the well-meaning gratitude lesson of the day. “My kids are tired of it by now,” Carter adds with a laugh.

Yet she persists. Carter is betting that cultivating a culture of gratitude will pay off, that once her teenagers have metamorphosed into well-rounded adults, they will stop pushing back and start paying it forward in the gratitude department.

Unexpected benefits of gratitude

But why is this attitude of gratitude so important to Carter and to a growing field of child development experts? Because gratitude is often recognized as the wellspring from which other character-building virtues follow. And a growing body of research into adolescents and gratitude is finding that tweens and teens who are regularly able to tap into a sense of gratitude — that is, acknowledging the gifts that life bestows — benefit in expected and unexpected ways.

Giacomo Bono, who co-authored a landmark 2011 study titled “Measuring Gratitude in Youth,” found that kids ages 14 to 19 who appreciate what they have are more likely to form strong and healthy friendships and family ties and do better academically. They also experience lower levels of anxiety and depression — a significant finding given the steep rise in both for children. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 25 percent of adolescents suffer from anxiety. In short, according to the study, “Grateful adolescents appear to be happy adolescents.”

Bono, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills and co-author of the book Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character, says that for starters, it’s essential to understand what gratitude is not: it’s not just about writing thank-you notes to your aunt and remembering to say “please” and “thank you.” Those basic social skills fall under the grateful umbrella, but gratitude is much more than being polite, says Bono. “It’s a spiritual path that leads toward being your best self.”

Bono adds that the trick is to help teens, so typically afflicted with a myopic “it’s all about me” worldview, discover that being thankful serves not just others, but helps them. Feeling grateful can be the antidote during the often troubled teen years, so that they feel less isolated, misunderstood, and alienated. “When they respond to kindness by reciprocating kindness, they don’t feel so alone. They feel like they matter. They develop more social and emotional competence,” he says.

As director of the Youth Gratitude Project, which provides preschool, elementary, middle, and high schools with resources for teaching gratitude, Bono has seen gratitude improve kids’ relationships.

But as any parent knows, it’s one thing to instruct kids at school about how to be better people. It’s quite another to foster gratitude at home, where kids and teens may shut out their parents’ well-meaning advice.

Teaching teens to look for the good

Even when Carter gets massive attitude from her teens, it’s worth the effort. The goal is to have a teen, and ultimately a grown adult, who isn’t chronically frustrated, disappointed, and envious. It’s to raise someone who can find joy in what they do have.

With teens in particular, the question isn’t whether you should teach them gratitude, says Carter. It’s how to do it.

“You can be stealthy about it,” says Carter, who describes teens as professional “gratitude resistors.” If you try to foist it on them, they may run in the opposite direction, or at least slam their bedroom door in response. “If I, as a parent, am asking you to reflect on what you feel grateful for, the underlying message is, ‘You need to be grateful to me and everything I’ve worked so damn hard to give you.’” Meanwhile, their developmental job is to individuate, particularly against “the dedicated parent who just wants a little appreciation. This can feel very heavy for them,” she adds.

So Carter relies on another essential character virtue: persistence. Her kids may sigh and squirm, but they know that every night at dinner, gratitude will be on the menu. She doesn’t always force them to take part. Simply modeling gratitude helps pave the way, she says. So she keeps a sense of humor about it. “I tell them, ’You guys can make fun of me, but at some point during dinner, I am going to talk about something good that happened.”

In his studies of what works for teaching teens gratitude, Bono says the key is that teens don’t feel they are being forced to feel appreciative, but rather they are encouraged to think about and express what they feel fortunate to have.

Activities that take teens outside of themselves help foster a sense of gratitude, too, says Bono. Yes, delivering clothing to hurricane survivors helps teens get perspective on their good fortune. But, adds Bono, “It can also be as simple as having them help younger kids in your home.”

Carter says she regularly asks questions that will encourage her kids to focus on what’s good, rather than what’s bad. “You can ask, What was the best thing in your day? What’s working? Tell me about a happy moment.”

This is part of a new series on how the science of character development can help parents promote honesty, diligence, gratitude, generosity, forgiveness, and curiosity in their children.

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