In my last post, I introduced you to power of gratitude in the lives of children and families. In this post, I will show you how gratitude can be communicated to your children through many conduits. That' s a good thing because, maybe more than any other message, you're going to have to send the message of gratitude frequently and seemingly forever before your children finally get the message. Though it's easy to blame your children for not expressing appropriate gratitude, this apparent unwillingness to absorb the message of gratitude isn't really your children's fault. Young children are often not developmentally ready to move beyond their egocentrism and recognize the role that others play in their lives. In turn, older children are likely being bombarded by messages from popular culture and peers that stand in sharp contract to your messages of gratitude.
Sending messages of gratitude to your children can be sent in five ways.
First, you can talk to your children about what they should be grateful for. You can point out all that they have in their lives for which they can be thankful. You send messages about gratitude simply by discussing it with them and allowing them to process your words. They also think about and verbalize how they see gratitude. In this process, they will also experience emotions of empathy and caring that emerge from feeling gratitude. This internally directed experience with gratitude enables children to begin to embrace the power of gratitude.
Second, you can encourage your children to express gratitude to others who have helped them. This form of gratitude is even more powerful because it involves your children actually engaging in, rather than just thinking about, gratitude. When children express gratitude toward someone, they create a relationship with gratitude that offers both themselves and the recipients tremendous benefits. This externally directed experience with gratitude has the added impact of your children receiving reinforcing messages from the beneficiaries of their gratitude. Children not only generate their own emotions associated with gratitude, but also receive verbal and emotional messages about gratitude from the receivers that further bolsters the meaning and value of gratitude in their lives.
The most common way that children can express gratitude is to simply say "thank you" to those who helped them. But there are other, more powerful ways they can convey and experience gratitude. The idea of "pay it forward" is an active way in which children can honor through action the help they have received from others. Children who were, for example, consoled by a friend when they were sad can show gratitude toward that friend by, in turn, caring for another friend who is feeling blue. Additionally, one of the best ways to express gratitude to adults who give them enriching opportunities, for example, when parents provide their children with sports or music lessons, is for children to take full advantage of those opportunities.
Third, children receive powerful messages about gratitude when they are the recipients of gratitude. When they help other people and receive thanks in return, they experience first hand the positive influence they can have on others. Children can bask in the emotional reactions of those they help. When children respond to the gratitude with a "You are very welcome," they affirm the value of the assistance they provided and the gratitude they received. They can also experience the wonderful feelings of satisfaction, joy, and pride in having helped others.
Fourth, you can reinforce the importance of gratitude and make your children feel darned proud of themselves by acknowledging their actions to others. For example, if a neighbor stops by just after your daughter helped you clean out the garage, you might say, "I really appreciated her help because it would have taken so much longer without her." Of course, you don't want brag about your children's good deeds (e.g., "My son spent the weekend saving the world!," said with self-congratulation), but a heart-felt and appropriately expressed acknowledgment to others for what your children have done can go a long way to teaching them about gratitude.
Finally, an underappreciated way to teach your children gratitude is for them to learn to express gratitude toward themselves. If your children can value what they have offer to themselves ("I did a nice thing sending that card to my grandma"), then they will be in a better position to have an appreciation for what they do for others and what others do for them. This "self-gratitude" can also contribute to your children's development of self-esteem and self-respect because it requires that they recognize and hold in high regard who they are and what are capable of giving.
This blog post is excerpted from my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You (The Experiment Publishing, 2011).