THE BLOG

Why You Should Start Saying Grace With Your Children (Even if You Don't Believe in God)

02/18/2015 11:07 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

The following post is adapted from "The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous and Smart About Money" (Harper), by Ron Lieber, which was published earlier this month.

Picture, in your head, a family sitting down to dinner and bowing their heads to give thanks. The family you see may not be your own. Maybe saying grace feels hokey or forced to you. Perhaps you think your kids would roll their eyes. If you don't believe in God, the ritual before the meal may feel unnatural: who exactly are you thanking, and why?

If you don't say grace as a family, you're certainly not alone: just 44 percent of Americans report saying daily grace or a similar blessing before meals, while 46 percent rarely say it at all.

But after spending five years researching a new book about how to raise kids with the right financial knowledge and values, I've come to believe that saying grace is one of the single best things you can do for your kids -- no matter what god you do or don't believe in. As a personal finance columnist, I have watched untold numbers of adults bring a variety of financial disasters upon themselves. As unlikely as it sounds, the simple act of saying grace can help protect your kids from becoming one of them.

Our children get relatively few opportunities to pause and reflect, let alone count their blessings. They live in a world that conspires against waiting. Movies are available on demand, television commercials are optional, and homes have more bathrooms and telephones, which means less sharing. Meanwhile, many older kids fill idle moments looking at Instagram on their phones, which encourages them to think about what they don't have -- the party they are not at, the vacation they are not on, the shopping they are not doing -- instead of their own good fortune. They press their noses up against the glass of the device and others ask them to "like" it, literally.

But feeling fortunate is good for kids, and grace is just another word for the regular expression of gratitude. A number of scholars have measured gratitude levels in children and found strong correlations between gratitude and higher grades, levels of life satisfaction, and social integration. There's also a link between gratitude and lower levels of envy and depression. In a series of experimental "gratitude interventions," researchers have asked children to keep a gratitude journal or write a letter to someone who has had a lasting impact on them and then read the letter aloud to them. The videos of these readings are so sweet and sincere they will probably make you cry.

So before your next family dinner, ask yourself this: is there a version of grace that could feel right for your family -- flexible enough to work for all moods and occasions, simple enough to do every time you gather?

Your grace can be completely godless, if you're uncomfortable with the idea of a divine spirit. It can be as simple as asking everyone at the table to talk about one thing that happened that day that made them feel grateful or lucky. Christine Carter, a sociologist who directs the Greater Good Science Center's parenting program, suggests letting kids invent an entirely new gratitude ritual for the family to adopt. If they oversee it, it may feel less intrusive.

Even one word can go a long way. Lisa Cepeda and Antonio Cepeda-Benito are among the very few parents who always manage miraculously to gather their kids for breakfast and dinner each day, and they began a special tradition about 20 years ago. Their son Augustin was in kindergarten in Texas, and he came home from daycare and told his parents that they had said a small prayer before eating lunch. The pair had never been much for attending formal worship services. Still, they decided that to honor Augustin's wish to bless the family meal at home, they would simply say thank you. Since the family speaks Spanish at home, they decided to do it in that language.

On the night I visited them in Burlington, Vermont, where they now live, they served salad and homemade pizza and oversize chocolate chip cookies. But before we got to eat any of that, we all clasped hands, closed our eyes, bowed our heads and uttered one word: gracias.

Then Lisa, who is a psychologist, and Antonio, who is a university administrator, explained why they keep the ritual going:

Lisa: If we don't do it now, it feels unsettled.
Antonio: It's a reminder that we are a family and that we are together.
Lisa: Though we're not always holding hands.
Antonio: It does many good things. If we have an argument...
Lisa: If we're upset, we just do a fist bump, and all the kids know...
Antonio: But it gets you closer to making up! If feelings got hurt, it reduces the sharpness through human contact.

Part of the beauty of the gesture is that it is an empty vessel, one that all the people around the table fill with their own meaning on that day, in that single moment of silence. Gracias.

Another regularly scheduled bit of gratitude that might interest older kids comes from a documentary called 365 Grateful, which you can show your children online. In an effort to beat back depression, the filmmaker took one picture each day of something she felt grateful for. A photo assignment like this could be a requirement for middle-school kids who are begging for their first smartphone.

After several years of this, teenagers will develop a better appreciation for what they do have -- for the belongings and the experiences and the heritage and traditions that make their family and friends and community unique. They may not be have everything they want or get as much attention on social media as their peers, but there is almost certainly something about their lives that is truly special.

Once we start expressing gratitude regularly for the things and the people that we value, two things happen naturally. We're more likely to protect them in the best way possible: flood insurance, renter's insurance, long-term care insurance for our beloved older relatives, all of which can save us from financial disasters. But we're also less likely to overreach in the first place. The teenagers who find satisfaction in the possessions that they do have and cherish them may well grow up into people who do not get into trouble with student loan or credit card debt or overreach with their mortgages or take foolish risks with investments.

So if you're looking for one failsafe way to begin your own family gratitude ritual, consider this: Several years ago, I noticed how much my daughter liked proposing toasts. It's a grownup thing to do, to reach across, clink glasses, take a big sip and try to do it all without sloshing juice or water all over the table. And you can propose a toast to nearly anyone or anything. Teachers. Sunshine. Cops. Athletes. The beach. Friends and relatives and clergy and the community institutions that make our neighborhoods worth living in. Or simply to us, and our good fortune. To life.

So here's a toast to your family, wherever you come from, whatever its size, no matter who or what you believe in. Surely each of you, each day, has at least one thing to be thankful for. It would help us all to be happier if we simply stop, think and raise a glass to acknowledge how grateful we are for that one thing -- and for each other.