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The Daily Tar Heel

Gratitude is more than just manners, according to UNC research team

Photo courtesy of Andrea Hussong

Research has shown that gratitude is a vital human emotion and value, resulting in more satisfactory personal relationships and more positive health outcomes.

But for Andrea Hussong, the director for the Center for Developmental Science at UNC and the Raising Grateful Children Project, cultivating that gratitude in children at an early age is most important.

“Very little research has been done on gratitude in children under the age of 10,” she said. “Our goal is to help foster the conversation of new ways to be thinking about gratitude as things beyond ‘Thank you’ and manners.”

The Raising Grateful Children Project looks to foster that conversation. They want to do more research to see what gratitude looks like in young children, and develop that research into tools to help parents better instill gratitude in their children. 

Julie Becker, an undergraduate research assistant with the project, said what she loves most about Raising Grateful Children is their goal of conversation between parents and their children.

“I think we’ve noticed throughout this that a lot of times parents think they are cultivating gratitude, but they end up just focusing on manners because those are easiest,” she said. “But they are missing important pieces of the process of developing gratitude. We want to help parents with that.”

Since receiving a grant from the John Templeton Foundation in 2012, Hussong and her team of fellow psychologists, graduate students and undergraduate students have been following a group of about 100 children ages 9-12 and their parents in the Triangle area.

“We’re trying to help with mutual conversation in which parents can help children become aware of what they’re grateful for and make meaning of what they’ve received to help cultivate that gratitude experience.”

The project has now received a second grant from the Templeton Foundation and has developed an online program for parents. Hussong said the program is more than just activities to practice gratitude. It places an emphasis on the parent and child’s relationship, on conversation.

“We have in there the ideas of what gratitude means in kids, and the things that parents can do in their daily conversations with kids to cultivate gratitude,” she said. “How they respond when kids are grateful, and how they respond when kids are ungrateful.”

Taylor Thomas, a graduate student working with Raising Grateful Children, said her research focus was on how parents cultivate social, emotional and cognitive outcomes in children. She was drawn to this project due to the idea of doing so through conversations about past experiences.

Becker said in working on the project, she has seen just how important and beneficial gratitude is. Hussong agreed.

“The more we study this, the more we see it, or the lack of it in so many places,” she said. “It’s a very pervasive experience that can be a daily experience or sometimes transformative in a big moment. And we think that the more you practice gratitude — like any big skill — the more you have the possibility of it being transformative for you when you need it.”

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