“A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all the other virtues.” ~Cicero
Gratitude—or a lack thereof—is something all parents encounter during the process of raising children. At some point or other, what mother hasn’t looked on with horror as her child blurted out a variant of, “I don’t like this! It’s not what I wanted for my birthday!” or worried that her kids took the many blessings and privileges in their lives for granted? While it’s fairly easy to drill polite responses (like saying “thank you”) into youngsters, instilling a true sense of gratitude in them can be considerably more difficult.
Here’s the good news: your children aren’t destined to become entitled, self-centered members of the so-called “Me Generation.” There are concrete things you can to do make gratitude a meaningful part of your children’s lives—and the Thanksgiving season is the perfect time to start.
For many reasons, a mindset of true gratitude is something that every parent wants to instill in his or her children. Gratitude will increase your kids’ personal happiness and perspective, and it will also help them to develop positive, authentic relationships with others. But did you know that a consistent practice of gratitude also encourages better health, sleep, emotional well-being, and improves academic performance? Perhaps most important of all, gratitude helps us appreciate the good things in the world, large and small. It prompts us to stop and remember that we are all interconnected.
While parents can (and should) encourage their kids to live with gratitude all year round, the Thanksgiving holiday is a perfect time to start modeling and teaching an attitude of true thankfulness.
Here are seven transformative tips to build gratitude into your family’s daily life:
Share your gratitude out loud. Especially for young children, the concept of feeling gratitude (as opposed to simply saying “thank you” when prompted) can be a difficult one to grasp. Children 3-6 years old aren’t emotionally mature enough to see outside themselves, which is a big part of gratitude. But from 7-10, gratitude in children begins to peak in sync with their emotional development. http://www.greatschools.org/parenting/teaching-values/1741-raising-a-grateful-child.gs. Studies also show that the earlier gratitude is introduced, the more easily children assimilate it into their lives as they grow up. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23331105.
Youngsters will better connect to thankfulness when you explain what you’re grateful for, and why. Look for teachable moments and narrate them as often as possible. “I am so grateful for this beautiful sunset we can share.” As often as possible, I tell my children that I’m so grateful to be their mother, and I thank them for everything from their hugs and kisses to their willingness to share toys with each other. This type of praise helps them develop positive self-esteem for the right reasons. Encourage your children to do the same. Expressing gratitude is one of the best ways to make it grow.
Make time for thanks. Designate a daily time for your family to talk about their day and to name things they are thankful for. Dinner and bedtime are good opportunities. This addition to your family’s routine might spark some interesting conversations. You may be surprised by what your kids are thinking about and appreciative of! Be sure to make room for silliness and fun. Don’t prompt your child to “get serious” if he says he’s thankful for his Spiderman action figure or for the fact that his infant sister’s spit-up landed on the floor instead of him. Remember, both gratitude and laughter are best expressed out loud!
Another way to infuse gratitude into your family’s daily routine is to name something you’re grateful for every time a disappointment occurs. Find the silver lining, whenever possible.
Help the thank-you note make a comeback. According to some cynics, the thank-you note is a dying art—but that doesn’t have to be the case in your family. Buy a pack or two of generic thank-you notes or blank cards (they don’t have to be fancy!) and encourage your children to use them when they receive a gift or when they want to express appreciation for something another person has done.
Your child might write a thank-you note to her soccer coach at the end of the season, or to her babysitter for giving extra homework help. You can allow younger kids to dictate while you write, and then help them sign their names (or include a doodle) at the end of the note. It’s important you allow your children to choose what they are thankful for and how they wish to express it.
Writing down gratitude enhances its beneficial effects. Place a note of appreciation in your child’s lunch box. Hang a Gratitude List on your refrigerator and let the whole family add their favorite blessings into the count. Encourage your child to keep a gratitude journal. Consider keeping one yourself. Those who dwell on their positive memories actually tend to have more positive experiences, and feel the benefits more deeply.
Encourage teamwork and community involvement. Pitch in! Thanksgiving and the whole holiday season offer many opportunities to volunteer on community projects for those in need. Try to find a way your whole family can give back: volunteering at a nursing home, collecting items for food drives, or helping to prepare dinners for the homeless.
When children use their time, energy, and talents to help make the world a better place, they feel more connected to all that is around them. When they see others who are in need of help and receive gratitude from others, they will learn in a profound way about the beautiful daisy chain of give and take.
My family used to sing carols at a treatment center for the mentally ill every Christmas. We also distributed food and volunteered in poor neighborhoods. Some of my earliest and happiest memories involve sharing my family’s good fortune with others. The values that prompted those traditions are still with me today in how I live my life. I definitely want to pass them on to my children.
Gratitude and happiness go hand-in-hand. This is one of my favorite times of year, for all the opportunities we have to celebrate and appreciate one another. Raising grateful children is one of the best ways to create a brighter tomorrow for us all.