A Follow Up on Gratitude & Teens

On Tuesday, we wrote about Jeff Froh's research on kids and gratitude – how it was hard for kids to feel grateful to people when they were still trying to develop their sense of independence. It may be that gratitude and independence are just diametrically opposed.

Trying to tease out that idea a bit more, made me think further about a conversation I had with Froh and a clinician, following a presentation by Froh at a conference in Denver.

After Froh's lecture, a clinician who worked with teenagers approached after his presentation. The clinician applauded Froh's research on gratitude, but he felt compelled to what he believed was a fatal flaw in the work: at best, those exercises might stir pedestrian forms of gratitude-lite.

True gratitude, the clinician argued, was a philosophical or religious state of awareness: a recognition of our world's abundance and bounty. It's not triggered by something as banal as helping with homework. True gratitude comes when we choose to see that we've been done a favor just to be put on this earth, have families and friends, and live in a prosperous nation.

The clinician was adamant that true gratitude would not be complicated by needs for independence, or by the age of a child. In his view, high-order religious gratitude trumped all else. He hypothesized that true gratitude would be correlated with only good feelings and great outcomes, uniformly.

There are two reasons to be skeptical about the clinician's hypothesis.

First, as Froh pointed out to him, the kids in the letter exercise attended a parochial school. They were regularly taught the importance of gratitude, and they expressed this gratefulness to God daily, through prayer. That did not insulate them from the side effects of writing the gratitude letter.

The second reason to doubt this is the research relating to children's understanding of God. As Ashley wrote about in a previous post, researchers such as Clark University's Lene Jensen have found that children's view of God is affected by his age and his parents' authority style. If a child's parents support his autonomy, he will envision a more forgiving God; if his parents are strict and punishing, he will envision an angry, powerful God. During the teen years─when many children are battling their parents for independence─the God of adolescents is judgmental, disapproving, and unforgiving.

If those factors alter how they conceive God, then those forces will certainly alter their experience of gratitude, even religious gratitude. Children's need for autonomy is a genuine need; it isn't something trivial that bows down, even before a higher power.

The point is that children's age, parents, and developmental needs filter their perception of everything.