Imagine your children in their nicest clothes, crawling on their hands and knees, heads humbly bowed. They creep with their classmates in a quiet parade down the center aisle of their school auditorium, their fingers gripping floral bouquets. Arriving on stage, your children prostrate themselves, before rising to extend the fragrant blooms to their beloved teachers, reverently thanking them for their instruction. In the audience, parents weep.
Sound like an alien planet of robot kid-slaves? Actually, it’s Thailand’s wai kru ceremony. Early every school year in this east Asian nation, Wai Kru Day (Teacher Appreciation Day) provides an occasion for students to express respect, gratitude, and indebtedness to their educators. The formal event can include Buddhist chants and songs of appreciation, gifts presented in golden containers, candles, incense, encouraging advice and pats on the pupils’ heads from teachers to help “knowledge to absorb into the child’s brain.”
China, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan also lavishly celebrate their venerated instructors with flowers, speeches, performances, banners proclaiming “We Love You, Teachers!” and expensive gifts such as prepaid shopping cards, cosmetics, designer handbags, and iPads (which are more bribes than part of their legitimate appreciation).
It’s not just schoolteachers that other nations express gratitude for. In Thailand and other east Asian nations with Buddhist and Confucian traditions, gratitude is expected and revered. Culture guidebook The Thai and I: Thai Society and Culture, by Roger Welty, says, “Every person … if he is to be truly Thai, should feel and express gratitude to mother and father teachers, and those who have supported or patronized him in any way.”
Value of gratitude falls
Gratitude’s significance diminishes as you move west. And in the United States, it doesn’t fare well at all. A study in the British Journal of Social Psychology notes that “20% of American adults rated gratitude as a constructive and useful emotion, compared to 50% of Germans. Ten percent of Americans responded that they ‘regularly and often’ experience the emotion of gratitude, as compared to 30% of Germans.”
Lack of gratitude in American children is chafing the patience of many parents, and it shows up in our culture of entitlement. A Wall Street Journal opinion columnist chronicled the “entitlement epidemic,” and psychologists consider the underlying causes infecting “children of entitlement.” Frustrated parents are taking drastic actions to curb ungratefulness, such as canceling Christmas, and they’re organizing into support groups such as Mothers Against Ungrateful Children on Facebook.
American children who seldom feel or express gratitude — thankfulness or appreciation — are missing out on scores of potential benefits, claim researchers. A huge trove of scientific data offers evidence that feeling appreciative leads to substantial psychological, physical, and social gains. Gratitude is positively associated with: happiness, self-esteem, optimism and sleep quality, enhanced life satisfaction, decreased anxiety, lower depressive symptoms, and less body dissatisfaction.
Aren’t these exactly what we want for our children?
Practicing gratitude has also been linked to improved social skills, such as a willingness to help others, “high-quality relationships,” ability to develop new relationships, and improved “social bonding.”
Material girls (and boys)
Why are our kids so ungrateful? Why can’t children — raised in a country so rich and influential that people across the globe risk their lives to immigrate here — appreciate their incredible privilege? Indulgent parents are often blamed, but research suggests another villain: TV commercials.
Yes, our children are inundated by ads. Kids in the United States see 40,000 commercials every year, estimates the American Academy of Pediatrics. The average 15-year-old, claims another study, has spent more hours staring at television than attending school.
Ads for toys, tasty snacks, sugared cereal, electronic gizmos, amusement parks, and other enticing stuff, presented in exciting and glamorous settings, are loudly, stylistically blasted into their innocent ears and onto their curious eyeballs. Eventually they develop materialistic mentalities. A University of Amsterdam 2011 study in Pediatrics defined materialism as “having a preoccupation with possessions and believing that products bring happiness and success.” Dutch researchers claim “materialism and life satisfaction negatively influence each other, causing a downward spiral. … Materialistic children are less happy.” Also looking at adults, the study concludes “that materialistic children may become less happy later in life.”
Of course, children don’t catch materialism solely through contagious TV commercials. Parents also, unwittingly, infect their beloved little ones. A 2015 study, “Defined by Your Possessions? How Loving Parents Unintentionally Foster Materialism in their Children,” warns “using material possessions to express love or reward children for their achievements can backfire.”
Makes you think. Do we shower our children with treats and quick gifts, instead of devoting hours to listening, hugging, playing, reading, and embarking on adventures with them? Is their relationship to the TV and their toys stronger than it is to us, because we haven’t forged a lifelong heartwarming social bond with them?
“Loving and supportive parents can unintentionally foster materialism in their children despite their best efforts,” according to the study.
They also unconsciously do it by modeling materialism. Regardless of what parents say, it’s what they do. “When parents are materialistic, kids are likely to follow suit,” said Christine Carter, Raising Happiness author and sociologist. “When parents — as well as peers and celebrities — model materialism, kids care more about wealth and luxury.” When parents always provide gifts and material goods as rewards, take them away as punishment, and give things instead of emotional support and attention, they’re teaching them to value things.
And that’s unlikely to make them happy. “Research suggests that materialists … tend to be less globally satisfied with their lives. … Materialists are more likely to be depressed, lonely, and have low self-esteem,” concludes a Baylor University 2014 study titled “Why are materialists less happy? The role of gratitude and need satisfaction in the relationship between materialism and life satisfaction.”
“A better understanding of the role of gratitude,” continues the paper, “may be the antidote to the increasingly negative outcomes associated with the rising tide of materialism in the ever-expanding global consumer culture. … We propose that one reason materialists are less satisﬁed with their lives is that they experience less gratitude.”
Ah. It comes back to gratitude. If materialism makes kids sad, and gratitude makes kids happy, how do we get that into our children’s hearts and heads?
The grateful head, full of oxytocin
One explanation for the reason that gratitude has such a powerful effect on our lives lies in a hormone called oxytocin. Nicknamed the “cuddle drug” or the “bonding hormone,” oxytocin is a brain chemical that promotes trust, attachment, empathy, intimacy, relaxation, generosity, calmness, and security, while reducing anxiety and stress. Oxytocin enhances everything from cardiovascular regulation to wound-healing and can possibly prevent schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders.
Parents can help their kids access this amazing brain-made drug by teaching them to express gratefulness. Dr. Robert Emmons of UC Davis, author of Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, says studies indicate that practicing gratitude can raise your hedonic “set point” by 25%. Set point isn’t about tennis: it’s a theory that suggests everyone has a baseline level of happiness, where you invariably return to after experiencing highs and lows. A 25% upgrade can vault someone out of chronic moodiness or transform the humdrums into happiness. So saying thanks isn’t just being about being polite. It provides the thanker with a wonderful tool that enables them to appreciate their life.
In a nation built on the idea of individual happiness and well being, it’s ironic that we don’t emphasize this powerhouse of an emotion. Gratitude may be a necessary but currently AWOL ingredient in the pursuit of the American Dream.
Experts share tips on promoting gratitude in children.