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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Raising grateful children


Charles Darwin may be best known for his theory of survival of the fittest – the most adaptable organisms are the most likely to survive and thrive.

Less well known but perhaps just as important is his view on human relationships. “A man’s friendships are one of the best measures of his worth,” he once said.

Sara Algoe, an associate professor of social psychology in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience who studies gratitude and its effect on our relationships, couldn’t agree more.

“Gratitude may actually alert us to people in our environment who are looking out for our best interests,” Algoe said. “And that’s really central to survival, to the human species. We need to be able to find people who have our backs.”

But how do we learn gratitude skills?

That’s what Andrea Hussong, the director of the Center for Developmental Science and a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, has spent the past three years trying to uncover through Raising Grateful Children, a study initiated in 2012 with a research grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Hussong said the study focuses on understanding parents’ gratitude goals, then helping parents cultivate those values in their children.

“Gratitude is how you make sense of what you’ve been given – your feelings and thoughts about those gifts,” Hussong said. “And then how you act on that to show appreciation.”

Beyond “thank you”

One way to measure gratitude is through conversation. Hussong and her team, which includes psychologists from Carolina, Duke and N.C. State, held focus groups and then lab visits with 100 middle-class families that included children ages 6 to 9.

“We didn’t want to simply study manners or appreciation – we wanted to study the whole experience of gratitude,” Hussong said.

Kids as young as 6 recognize the difference between simply saying “thank you” and genuine gratitude.

Andrea Hussong

“Many of the children we talked to had a lovely phrase for telling the difference between the two,” Hussong said. “They’d say: ‘She said thank you, but she didn’t mean it.’ So even at that age they are getting it – but they lack the perspective, the experience of it.”

To better understand how parents teach this, Hussong and her team used these focus groups to create a longitudinal study. Since 2012, they have gathered data on these families and their children (now ages 9–12) via lab visits a few times each year, and plan to continue the project into 2018. Through their observations, they found that parents teach gratitude to their children in different ways.

The first is modeling – watching parents express gratitude toward others. When mom thanks dad for cooking a delicious meal while the whole family eats together at the dinner table, the children take note.

“Every time you interact with your kid, you enact something,” Hussong said. “Whether you choose to or not, you do. And so you have a set of values that you’re demonstrating constantly.”

Beyond modeling, data shows that parents who talk to their kids about gratitude on a daily basis often have kids who are more grateful. “We think a lot of gratitude lessons are learned in daily conversations, rather than big, sit-down, let’s-instill-a-virtue discussions,” Hussong said.

How parents respond when children are ungrateful is crucial. “Our initial findings suggest that negative reinforcement toward a child’s entitlement may actually promote gratitude,” Hussong said.

Tween talk and beyond

Recently, Hussong and her team received another Templeton grant to translate their findings into programs for parents. They began by developing an online, web-based training platform for parents still participating in the study to learn communication skills with their now 9- to 12-year-olds.

In partnership with Story Mine Media, a Durham-based documentary film group, the researchers also created short videos to model conversations about gratitude from both adult and child perspectives.

“The goal here is not to change child behavior,” Hussong added. “The goal is to understand each other. We help parents learn how to listen to their kids, how to help kids share with their parents, and then how parents can share too.”

Sara Algoe

Gratitude becomes even more important as we age. After gathering data from more than 400 people in romantic relationships, Algoe and her team found that couples who express gratitude on a day-to-day basis have stronger relationships and feel more satisfied with their lives.

“Gratitude is a booster shot for relationships and health,” Algoe said. “No matter which way we look at it, on days people said thanks or received thanks they felt better about their relationship than they did the day before.”

Algoe and Hussong have teamed with Christopher Oveis, a professor of economics and strategic management at the University of California San Diego, to host a gratitude conference at Carolina in January.

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