Can You Make Gratitude Go Viral in Your Family?

It may seem trite to write about gratitude this week on the eve of Thanksgiving, but I want to raise it as more than a holiday-related exercise.  An article in The Boston Globe this past Sunday described research findings that coincide with my own naïve observations about human nature.

The author, David Desteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University, describes his research that shows that people who feel grateful for assistance they just received are more likely to be generous to someone else in need—thus spreading the gratitude and generosity and gratitude and generosity.   It could go viral!

Here’s a quote:

Such occurrences of indirect reciprocity — the extending of help to new people — is known to kick cooperation in a group into high gear. In the face of individual or societal tragedies, then, any phenomenon that can enhance such indiscriminate paying-it-forward stands as a key to resilience.

DeSteno is interested in helping people recover from natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, but my interest is in helping family members become more cooperative and generous with each other.

When parents come to me for help with children who are uncooperative, I often tell them to start by thanking their child profusely whenever he or she does something right, whether asked for or not.  This could be, “Thank you for getting down to breakfast on time!”  Or it might be, “Thank you for starting your homework when I asked.”  Even, “Thank you for playing nicely with your brother.”  The last one might require you to think to offer thanks before the interaction goes sour.

Often after a week or two of this simple intervention parents report to me that their children are already more compliant and cooperative.  It doesn’t solve everything, but it really gets the wheels turning in the right direction.  I think of gratitude as keeping the oil changed in your car.  Everything just works better together that way.

Some experts have warned against over-praising children.  I think that the problem comes when parents praise for no apparent reason.  I’m not saying that it’s wrong to tell your children what a great kid he is or that you love him to bits.  But praise that is directly related to a behavior that just happened really teaches your child how to behave in the way you want.  It doesn’t lead to a swelled head—just a child who knows what you expect and how to earn your gratitude.  Then he or she feels more generous.  And on it goes.

So, consider starting this viral cycle in your family, and let me know how it goes.  I’d love to know.


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Photo credit:  Michigan Municipal League on Flickr


10 Responses to “Can You Make Gratitude Go Viral in Your Family?”
  1. Dear Carolyn,

    The research finding that recipients of gratitude pay it forward with generosity towards others is fascinating. Your approach to fostering this indirect reciprocity in families is very creative.

    I agree with you that over-praising children is only a problem when it is unrelated to their behavior. I learned that lesson the hard way when my daughter was little. I had a tendency to be overeffusive with my praise and she experienced it as over-the-top. I also came to realize that if everything was equally great then it became meaningless, so I learned to tone it down and be more discriminating in my praise. I still let her know that she was great but I didn’t get overly enthused with every stick figure she drew and every smart thing she said.

    Then there are the parents who think their children are great and can do no wrong, so they are not held accountable for their misbehavior. This kind of indiscriminate praise teaches children that the rules don’t apply to them and they don’t develop moral decision making skills or behavioral restraint.

    Thanks for sharing this research on gratitude and your ideas about how parents can foster their children’s generosity.

    Warm regards,

  2. Carolyn,

    I like your ideas about getting gratitude to go viral! I can see how this would work in organizations as well as families.

    This post was perfectly timed, too. Not trite at all!

  3. Carolyn,

    This suggestion falls right into line with other parenting research that suggests focusing our attention on their good behavior is the way to see more of that behavior. And I love the idea of viral gratitude in our families.


  4. I’m glad that someone with your education is coming out & saying that praising our children when related to a real function is a good thing.

  5. JoAnn Jordan says:

    Gratitude is a virus needed in every home. Thank you for the reminder.

  6. dr.cstone says:

    Hi Andrea,
    Thanks for your comment. I think kids do best when they know why we are praising them, when they can link it to what they did. And then of course, we still need to set limits!

  7. dr.cstone says:

    Hi Rachelle,
    I agree–this is a principal that would work very well in organizations–like the work place. People feel so much better when their work is appreciated. Then they can make better use of criticism.

  8. dr.cstone says:

    Dear Ann,
    You are absolutely right–we get more of the behavior we pay most attention to. I like to think of it as watering the flowers and leaving the weeds to wither.

  9. dr.cstone says:

    You bet, Kathy. That worry about “over-praising” seems to have appealed to the puritans in us. Praise is good, brings on good feelings, and encourages the behavior we want to see.

  10. dr.cstone says:

    Hi JoAnn,
    I like the idea of the “gratitude virus!” Something to culture!