Ben Gantert, 12, center, washes dishes near his father, Kurt Gantert, left, sister Amelie Gantert, 9, near right, and mother Gabrielle Toledano in San Francisco. The family assigns each child chores and makes sure to thank whoever cooks dinner. Laura Morton for The Wall Street Journal
At the Branstens' modern white dining table, the family holds hands for their nightly ritual.
Arielle, 8 years old, says she's thankful for her late grandfather, Horace, and how funny he was. "I'm missing him," she says. Her third-grade pal, over for dinner, chimes in, "I'm grateful for the sausages." Leela, who works for an education nonprofit, and her attorney husband Peter, burst into smiles. The San Francisco couple couldn't have scripted this better. Appreciation for things big and small—that's why they do this.
Giving thanks is no longer just holiday fare. A field of research on gratitude in kids is emerging, and early findings indicate parents' instincts to elevate the topic are spot-on. Concrete benefits come to kids who literally count their blessings.
Gratitude works like a muscle. Take time to recognize good fortune, and feelings of appreciation can increase. Even more, those who are less grateful gain the most from a concerted effort. "Gratitude treatments are most effective in those least grateful," says Eastern Washington University psychology professor Philip Watkins.
A field of research on gratitude in kids is emerging, and early findings show that kids who literally count their blessings show concrete benefits. Diana Kapp explains on Lunch Break. Photo: Getty Images.
Among a group of 122 elementary school kids taught a weeklong curriculum on concepts around giving, gratitude grew, according to a study due to be published in 2014 in School Psychology Review. The heightened thankfulness translated into action: 44% of the kids in the curriculum opted to write thank-you notes when given the choice following a PTA presentation. In the control group, 25% wrote notes.
"The old adage that virtues are caught, not taught, applies here," says University of California, Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons. Parents need to model this behavior to build their children's gratitude muscle. "It's not what parents want to hear, but you cannot give your kids something that you yourselves do not have," Dr. Emmons says.
This may seems obvious, but it eludes many parents, Dr. Watkins says. "I think the most important thing for us adults to realize is we're not very grateful either," he says.
The mere act of giving thanks has tangible benefits, research suggests. A 2008 study of 221 kids published in the Journal of School Psychology analyzed sixth- and seventh-graders assigned to list five things they were grateful for every day for two weeks. It found they had a better outlook on school and greater life satisfaction three weeks later, compared with kids assigned to list five hassles.
Another study examined 1,035 high-school students outside New York City. The study, published in 2010 in the Journal of Happiness Studies, found that those who showed high levels of gratitude, for instance thankfulness for the beauty of nature and strong appreciation of other people, reported having stronger GPAs, less depression and envy and a more positive outlook than less grateful teens.
Further, teens who strongly connected buying and owning things with success and happiness reported having lower GPAs, more depression and a more negative outlook. "Materialism had just the opposite effect as gratitude—almost like a mirror," says study co-author Jeffrey Froh, associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University.
Internet shopping has made acquisition so easy, the value of goods can be harder to recognize. "Today, if one of our boys needs a new pair of shoes, my wife goes on Zappos, picks out the color and size, and they show up the next day in a FedExFDX -0.13% box. No wishing. No prioritizing. No desiring for something that is out of touch. Just click the button, and presto, the shoes arrive on our doorstep," says Willy Walker, who heads commercial real estate finance firm Walker and Dunlop in Bethesda, Md. "It drives me crazy."
He has reacted to this reality—so different from how he'd eye a pair of Pumas at the store for months before ever getting them as a kid—with determination to keep consumption modest where possible. So, he hasn't set up the Wii his kids received as a present. "They get plenty of video entertainment all over, so why not scale back at home?" he says.
When his son wanted a cellphone for his 11th birthday, Mr. Walker set out to "get the Pinto rather than the Cadillac." In this case, his resolve fell away when challenged by factors like ease and quality. "The Pintos didn't really limit access to texting or Web-browsing. They just did everything worse than the more expensive phones. So we got him an iPhone 4S. Ugh."
A 2013 study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that tracked materialism in 355,000 high school seniors from 1976 to 2007 found that desire for lots of money has increased markedly since the mid-1970s, while willingness to work hard to earn it has decreased. Among kids surveyed, 62% thought it was important to have lots of money and nice things between 2005 and 2007, while 48% had this view from 1976 to 1978.
Kurt Gantert and Gabrielle Toledano post chores such as dishwashing and taking out the trash for their kids to do. Laura Morton for The Wall Street Journal
"This subject is huge for us," says Gabrielle Toledano, an executive vice president at videogame company Electronic Arts.EA -0.13% She and her husband live in San Francisco with their 9-year-old, Amelie, and 12-year-old, Ben. Ms. Toledano, and her husband Kurt Gantert, a camp director and stay-home dad, are deliberate about finding everyday ways to remind their kids how good they've got it.
"We eat family dinner every night and thank Dad for making it," Ms. Toledano says. "We talk about how I work hard so we can have nice food. If the kids don't come to the table when we call them, I tell them it's rude, because someone has made an effort," she says.
The couple is committed to their kids' having part-time jobs when they are old enough. "They should work in the back office or the kitchen," Ms. Toledano says. "There are interesting, hardworking people there. You learn more about gratitude when you have friends who aren't as privileged as you are," she says.
Despite good intentions, some parents are struggling with how to stoke the giving fires in their children. "It's an uphill battle," says Andrea Rice, president of professional development coaching business CareerCore. Her kids are 12 and 9. "We both work, so the kids have an au pair. They are shuttled from A to B. They don't really struggle much. Because that's their reality, it doesn't matter how much you say, 'Appreciate this, appreciate that,' " Ms. Rice says.
Everyday actions may be even more important than big efforts, researchers say. "Express gratitude to your spouse. Thank your kids," Hofstra's Dr. Froh says. "Parents say, 'Why should I thank them for doing something they should do, like clean their room?' By reinforcing this, kids will internalize the idea, and do it on their own."
Still, Eastern Washington's Dr. Watkins cautions, "Don't shove it down their throats." His family gives thanks at Thanksgiving, but it's not a formal process. "Don't make this, 'It's your turn, so say something whether you feel it or not,' " he says.
UC Davis's Dr. Emmons believes gratitude is actually easier for kids. "As we get older, the give and take of life is driven by expectations around tit-for-tat reciprocity. Kids have a natural affinity to gratitude. They often teach parents as much or more about gratitude than the other way around."