Teaching our kids to say "thank you" is important, but truly instilling a sense of gratitude in them is another matter entirely. Gratitude goes beyond good manners -- it's a mindset and a lifestyle.
A recent Wall Street Journal article about raising kids with gratitude acknowledged a growing interest in the area of gratitude in the younger generation. The piece cited studies showing that kids who count their blessings reap concrete benefits, including greater life satisfaction and a better attitude about school. Sounds good, right?
But before we get to the how, let's explore the why. What's the big deal about having an attitude of gratitude anyway?
First of all, gratitude is healthy for us. Believe it or not, gratitude benefits adults and kids alike on a very basic level. In fact, a study conducted by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, reveals that cultivating gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25 percent. It can also cause individuals to live happier, more satisfied lives and enjoy increased levels of self-esteem, hope, empathy and optimism. Other studies have shown that kids who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and family.
Gratitude also grants perspective -- even in kids. When you take into account the sheer amount of opportunities, privileges and material possessions most kids enjoy through no effort of their own, it's easy to see why many of them feel entitled. After all, they get used to getting stuff without knowing or caring where it comes from. Practicing gratitude, on the other hand, underscores the fact that all those toys and lessons and creature comforts don't just pop out of thin air. When kids recognize that the things they own and the opportunities they have come from someone other than themselves, it helps them develop a healthy understanding of how interdependent we all are -- and they may be more inclined to treat others with genuine respect.
In addition, gratitude improves relationships. Think about it: would you rather show up at work every day to colleagues who freely acknowledge and appreciate your contributions, or colleagues who take your efforts for granted with a perfunctory grunt of thanks? The appreciative co-workers, of course. It's a simple principle: gratitude fosters stronger, more positive and more genuine relationships.
Finally, gratitude counteracts the "gimmes." Ughhh. Think Veruca Salt and her constant refrain of "Don't care how, I want it now!" Fundamentally, gratitude is about being aware of who or what makes positive aspects of our lives possible, and acknowledging that. When kids learn to think in those terms, they can be less apt to make mindless, self-centered demands. Plus, they begin to appreciate what they have rather than focusing on what they wish they had.
So how can we help our kids learn to live gratefully? Gratitude starts at home, and here are 11 tips to help you start growing an attitude of gratitude in your own household:
1. Name your blessings.
Have a moment of thanks each day when everyone shares something they're thankful for. Whether the list includes a favorite toy, a particularly good piano lesson or a birthday card from Nana, this daily tradition can help develop a positive frame of mind. Older kids might even prefer to keep a gratitude journal and write down a few things they were thankful for each day before going to bed.
Sometimes when my kids have been particularly blue or negative, I've had them send me a nightly email with three things they're grateful for. It's been a successful solution every time, and realizing the good in their lives results in a quick and significant shift of attitude.
2. Be a grateful parent.
What an invaluable exercise it is to tell our kids why we're grateful to have them! It goes without saying that we love our kids, and that we're thankful beyond words for their love, their smiles, their hugs and so much more. When we tell them what makes them special to us, their self-esteem is boosted for the right reasons (not because they have the latest smartphone or because they're dressed fashionably). Plus, our example shows them that gratitude extends well beyond material things.
3. Resist the urge to shower them with too much "stuff."
The old adage "all things in moderation" is a useful guideline here. Of course we to want to give our kids the best, and this isn't to suggest that we refuse to buy them anything but the bare essentials. But buying kids whatever they want, whenever they want, dilutes the gratitude impulse and it can mean that they don't learn to value or respect their possessions. They wind up having so much stuff, they don't appreciate each toy or game or device, as they keep setting their sights on what's shinier and newer.
4. Have 'em pitch in when they want something.
If your kids get an allowance or earn money at a job, have them participate in buying some of the things they want. When kids themselves take the time to save up, they have an ownership stake in the purchase and gain an understanding of the value of a dollar by working toward what they want. It also teaches restraint and encourages kids to appreciate what they have, as well as giving them a more realistic perspective on what you and others do for them.
5. Keep thank-you notes on hand.
Sadly, sending handwritten thank-you notes seems to be a dying art. But it's actually a perfect way to encourage kids to express gratitude -- and as an added bonus, it can make the recipient's day. Of course it's more than appropriate for kids to send notes when they receive gifts, but we can also encourage them to thank teachers at the end of the school year, Little League coaches, ballet teachers, kind pediatricians, helpful librarians, families who host them for overnights or parties. There are loads of opportunities throughout the year for kids to recognize and thank those who have done something special for them, and it's a habit that if they start young, they'll naturally carry throughout life. It's important that kids compose and handwrite the notes themselves, and we as parents can set the example by making sure to write thank-you notes on a variety of occasions.
6. Set a good example by saying "thank you" sincerely and often.
The values our kids embrace as they get older aren't those we nag them into learning, but the ones they see us living out. There are countless opportunities every day for us to model gratitude for our kids -- for example, thanking the waitress who serves your food, the cashier who rings you up at the grocery store, the teller at the bank who cashes your check. When our kids see us expressing sincere thanks all the time, they'll be more inclined to do so as well.
7. Link gratitude to your Higher Power.
Most religious traditions emphasize the practice of gratitude through acknowledging blessings and through serving others. Attending regular religious services is one way for kids to gain a sense of gratitude as part of a community. Even those who aren't part of a formal worship community can offer prayers personally at appropriate times. Spirituality and gratitude go hand in hand.
8. Encourage them to give back.
The old saying "it's better to give than to receive" has stuck around for a reason. It really does feel great to help someone else out. Depending on their ages, kids can rake leaves for an elderly neighbor, say, or volunteer at a nursing home a few hours a week. You might even make service a family activity. When kids give their time and energy to help others, they're less likely to take things like health, home and family for granted.
9. Insist on politeness and respect all around.
When we teach our children to treat others with dignity and respect, they'll be more likely to appreciate the ways in which those folks contribute to and improve their lives. By the same token, they'll be less likely to take assistance and kindness for granted, and more likely to give it the value it deserves. It's crucial for us as parents to model for our children the importance of treating all people with respect. Sometimes we put more emphasis on showing respect for bosses, spiritual leaders and other high-profile people, while forgetting to extend the same courtesy to others. We need to model for our kids the importance of treating everyone with respect.
10. Look for teachable moments.
Sure, we all take the opportunity to have periodic conversations about values with our children -- but the key is to keep our eyes open for situations that eloquently illustrate our point. We need to seize those moments and be prepared to use them as the powerful teaching aids that they are. When kids can connect the concept of gratitude to a real-life situation, the lesson we're teaching will be much more likely to stick.
11. Find the silver lining.
It's human nature to see the glass half-empty from time to time -- and children are no exception. When kids complain or gripe, it can be helpful to try to find a response that looks on the bright(er) side. It's called an "attitude of gratitude" for a reason -- it's about perspective more than circumstance. Sometimes it's tempting to wallow lingeringly in self-pity. But as parents we need to remember that it's more productive to teach our kids to be resilient and refocus them on the positives they may be overlooking.
One of my most memorable lessons in having a grateful perspective came from a salmon slicer at Zabar's in New York City. I casually asked how he'd been, and his response stopped me in my tracks.
"Blessed," he said. "I go home to a warm bed. There's food on my table. I have running water and I can take a hot shower. I am blessed."
How powerful is that?! Just imagine how different life would be if we all adopted this attitude and passed it on to our children as well.
Regularly go through their toys together for items they have outgrown or no longer love. Set aside the gently used ones (it's insulting to donate broken and battered things) and bring your children with you to deliver to the collection point.
Ask guests to bring something simple for charity -- a book or small stuffed animal for instance -- rather than a gift for your child. Go as a family to a shelter, hospital or other place where these gifts will cheer up other children.
When you bake, make extras for an elderly neighbor. Shovel the driveway of the family next door with a new baby, or mow their lawn. Send cards and cookies to the troops. Draw pictures for the residents of the nearby retirement home.
Buy pet food and treats and bring your children with you when you deliver to the local shelter.
Go as a family to the local food bank. They can not only watch where their canned donations go, but they can sweep and stack and meet the people who are served by their contributions. Or bring your kids along on a midnight run to deliver sandwiches to the homeless.
Then, periodically, decide how to give it away together.
They can't do this. But they can come along and wait while you do. They will like the cookies.
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