- John F. Kennedy
I came into the bathroom this morning a little foggy-eyed to put on my makeup and get ready for the day as my son was putting on his school uniform. He bounced to the bathroom door and said, “Did you notice?” as he pointed to the condensation on the window. There was a clearly traced “I love Mom” carefully written by his index finger. A rush of gratitude filled me and as I was thinking about how I could begin my article on gratitude today, it was easy. He was feeling it. He shared it. And then so was I. Simple as that.
On Tuesday evening, I had the joy of participating in a dialogue on “Raising Thankful Kids” hosted by NBC’s Education Nation. My partner contributor, Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and TODAY Show Contributor, and I offered our ideas for cultivating gratefulness in our families lives along with input from many organizations, scholars, parents and other individuals who were interested in the topic. As we shared our ideas and learned from others, it occurred to me that living a grateful life in the busy, messy context of a family means finding small opportunities during each regular day to make gratefulness a habit. It is in those small, simple actions – attempts to incorporate an attitude of thankfulness, to not take for granted those we people we love and the environments that serve as the backdrop to our lives – that we change our thoughts and feelings and influence those around us. If you missed out on this rich conversation, here are some of the highlights.
What does it mean to be thankful and why is it important?
Thankfulness is a frame of mind, both thinking and feeling, of appreciation for the world and your place in it. Research shows grateful people have better physical health, less stress and depression, better sleep and a greater sense of well-being. The Templeton Foundation found that 90% of people say they are grateful but only 52% of women and 44% of men express it on a regular basis.
Is being thankful more than just being polite and saying “please” and “thank you?”
Those expressions of politeness are important but thankfulness goes well beyond politeness. It’s a way of thinking and feeling about our lives. Kids can say “Thank you.” but still not internalize the feeling of gratitude. Amy writes that gratefulness “begins with a recognition of life’s blessings, feeling a genuine appreciation for people and circumstances that bring joy.”
At what age can a child grasp and learn the concept of gratitude?
From birth, the seeds of gratitude are planted in infancy with a parent’s love and responsiveness to needs. Every time a baby cries and a parent responds, they expand their healthy attachment creating the foundation for gratitude. Toddlers can learn to express thanks for specific things with some modeling and guidance from caregivers. Parents of young children may worry that their kids struggle with empathy and gratitude if they struggle to share their toys. This is not the case. It is developmentally appropriate for young children to hold onto their toys, the essential tools of their learning. Parents can guide young children to take turns and show kindness to others. Amy suggests, “Teach preschoolers to say “please” and “thank you” through role plays with stuffed animals or action figures.” By the age of four, children can understand being thankful for acts of kindness, generosity or care from others. And by ages 6 or 7, children can practice genuine gratitude toward others without prompting.
What can parents do to instill gratitude in elementary-aged kids and in tweens and teens?
You can model gratitude to children of all ages through your own appreciation of family members and of your life. Recognizing the small everyday tasks can make a big difference in people’s feelings of being appreciated. “I noticed you helped set the table without my asking.”
Build trusting connections.
Look for ways to build a trusting connections and be present with your children through playing or reading together. Each night, E and I cuddle up with two books of his choosing. It is typically the calmest part of our day and a time I can count on to truly connect with him.
Appreciate other’s gifts.
Work on thank you notes for gifts and other contributions together. Spend time on crafting a meaningful message or drawing a beautiful card.
Scattered attention prevents feelings of gratitude. Savoring the moment and being aware of the people and events around you moment to moment provides a conducive mental state for gratefulness.
Give positive, specific feedback. How often do we recognize our mate for taking out the garbage? Probably not often. And how often do we feel unappreciated for all of the hard work we put into maintaining a household and raising children? Perhaps frequently. Make a point of noticing the small contributions. “I notice you did the dishes tonight. I so appreciate that.” Just this one simple practice can help move family members toward a more grateful state of mind.
Find the “silver lining.”
Amy writes about modeling optimism with your children by finding the silver lining in a difficult situation. Her example was, “This traffic jam is awful but I’m sure glad we have heat and fun music in our car!” Validating feelings first if a child is upset or frustrated is important before offering the silver lining.
Do small, everyday random acts of kindness. As you do these acts of kindness for others, it models ways that might contribute to the family too. Involve your children in doing something special for Dad, the smaller the better so that it can not seem to be a chore to check off the list and can fit into your busy schedule.
Involve in contribution and service.
Service does not have to be a grand gesture done once a year. Each family member can contribute to a household. Families can contribute to neighbors. And they can also contribute their time and energy to their school community. To learn more about simple ways to involve kids in service, check out “Citizen Kid.”
Consider other’s perspectives.
Placing yourself in someone else’s “shoes,” thinking about their thoughts and feelings can lead to gratefulness. The holidays often drum up conflict with family and friends because of expectations of how things will go or how traditions are to be upheld. Before getting upset about differing views, try to think about the others’ perspective. Realize most people have good intentions. They just may be different from your own.
Practice coping strategies.
Coach kids on what to do when angry or upset. Having coping tools gives them a greater sense of control and enables gratitude (for more, see “Cooling the Fire” and “The Mask of Anger”. Tweens and teens can journal feelings and write down what they are grateful for. Model self-control by managing your own anger constructively (for more, see “A Better Version of Yourself”).
Encourage sibling’s to be grateful for one another and express empathy and kindness.
You may ask, “How can we think about helping your sister today? She seems to struggle often before dinnertime. Do you have any ideas for engaging her in a fun activity during that time to help her?”
Heading into the holidays, how do you get kids to focus less on presents and an attitude of gratitude?
Remind your children of the people in their lives for whom they are grateful and think about how they might celebrate them through gift-giving over the holiday season. Amy writes, “Make a giving list. Encourage kids to make a list early of the things they plan to make or buy for family and friends.” This is such a smart idea. My son is always eager to make his “getting” list so we will work on creating his getting list early. Balance out the “gimmies” with lots of thinking about what others would like and enjoy for the holidays. And in addition to shopping, balance out the consumer time spent with time playing outdoors together or participating in activities that do not require dollars spent.
I have tremendous gratitude to you, reader for participating in this dialogue with me. I realize that there are many readers from places far away from my community in the U.S. who are not celebrating Thanksgiving. To you who do celebrate, I wish a happy Thanksgiving and to all, I wish many days and years of a grateful family life.