– Count your Blessings, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, 1942
It’s true. People who think about what they are grateful for do sleep better at night. Psychologists have done research on gratefulness and found that it increases people’s health, sense of well-being and their ability to get more and better sleep at night. One study from a leading researcher on gratitude at the University of California, Davis found that thankfulness can prevent a second heart attack in patients that have already gone through that trauma.A person who experiences the benefits of being grateful is a person who has developed it as a habit of thinking.
Parenting articles often address the concerns of entitlement in our culture;the need for our children to appreciate their lives and circumstances. Many of us live in a privileged society in which our daily needs are met without worry.
When little Jackson receives a gift, his dad tells him “You need to appreciate what you have instead of asking for more…” Yet when children are getting gifts, there is a desire for more and more. They are in the mode of getting and so they perpetuate that frame of thinking. It is our responsibility to at least balance the riches with a sense of appreciation. Scolding or making a child feel bad for wanting more is confusing since adults are typically doing the gift-giving in the first place. Children won’t understand why adults are placing a limit on their wishes. And should there be a limit? Dreaming of abundance can lead to more abundance. I want my child to be a practiced “wisher and dreamer” as well as being a practiced “appreciator and contributor”.
So the question remains. How do we teach our children to truly appreciate their lives and the many gifts they already have?
The answer lies in those small habits of thinking that can be reinforced every day in your household.
You can create habits of grateful thinking in your family. Begin your day by modeling the habit of thinking that you’d like all others in your family to adopt.
Home Sweet Home
Appreciating your environment, your home, possessions, and neighborhood are important since that environment plays a key role in shaping your daily experience. The following idea is borrowed from the Jewish concept of a Mezuzah, typically a beautiful small vessel that contains parchment with inscribed blessings from the Torah.
Place a small framed photograph of your home or picture of a favorite spot in your home and touch it each time you leave the house or enter. This recognition of your house as a blessing will help all family members cultivate a regular awareness and practice of appreciating your home.
Also, ensuring that all members of the family have responsibilities in keeping your home a safe, clean and well-organized environment is another way that all members demonstrate their appreciation of your home. It’s not enough to assign children a task. Be sure that you do it with them the first few times, modeling how you want things organized or cleaned, providing adequate tools for the job and making sure that they are capable. Allot a time for your family to do their chores together. This helps children feel a sense of contribution and togetherness and helps you avoid nagging. In many families, one person does the majority of the work and though things may get done more uniformly and in a more timely manner, it does a disservice to the others who may show greater respect and investment if they are contributing to their environment.
Whether you say a prayer or grace before eating or not, this is an ideal time to find out what individuals are grateful for that day. Family dinners together are an important way to connect and typically a time to recount the events of the day. Why not include a conversation about what you are grateful for?
Lead the way and model by contributing your grateful thoughts. Particularly in the month of November, our family counts down each day to Thanksgiving by using a felt tree made by Grandma Linda with leaves that are pockets for notes of gratefulness. For those who do not have the benefit of a crafty Grandma Linda, get a branch out of your yard and place it in a stable vase. Cut leaves out of construction paper and write your grateful thoughts on the leaves and attach each day. At dinner, we discuss what we want to write as our most grateful thought for our family that day. The same idea can be used for the holiday season as a countdown. During a season of giving and much receiving on the part of little ones, it’s a real opportunity to promote appreciation on a daily basis.
Bedtime is a natural time for reflection and appreciation. After turning on E’s nightlight and turning off the lights, we talk quietly about the day. As we go through the events, it affords me the opportunity to let him know when I am proud of him. I point those out and name them specifically as they come up naturally with the review. “It was thoughtful of you to offer your friend a snack when he came to play with us this afternoon.” This leads naturally into discussing gratefulness which we call our “happy thoughts.” Each night we have a habit of naming the people, things or experiences from the day that we are grateful for. Thoughts of gratefulness not only put a child in a calm, positive state of mind to promote a restful night of sleep but also help children appreciate the good things in life and focus on them and not take anything for granted.
During the holiday season, many gifts are exchanged with children typically at the center of the gift pile. Remember that in the moment of gift getting, it’s impossible to change or control children’s reactions. So practice in advance. Wrap up a cookie or bag of pretzels in a box and let your children know that you are going to practice. Remind them of the behaviors you want to see them exhibit. Advise them that they should be sure to look at the person who gave them the gift and to say thank you even if it’s something they don’t like or already have. Then, draw on that practice experience before you enter a gift-receiving situation by giving a quick reminder. Be sure to involve children in thinking about giving gifts too. It’s not enough to pick up a gift while you are at the mall.
Ask your child about Dad’s favorite things and give him or her the opportunity to brainstorm ideas for potential gifts. This will allow them to practice the values of perspective and empathy. They will feel proud and fully invested when they have thought through a gift they know a parent will truly love. Follow through and get or make one of the gift ideas from your child. This will give her the full joy of giving a gift out of love.
In addition, involve your child in giving to those who have less. It does not matter how much of the process your child understands. What matters is that you take the time to model and involve them in delivering canned goods to a local food bank or buying a present for a family that otherwise might not have much for the holiday. All of these opportunities for practice will balance out the holiday “gimmies” and teach valuable lessons in gratefulness.
As with any change in behavior or thinking, it’s the day-to-day changes that make a difference over time. So begin with one small step toward adding gratefulness into your family life and see if it makes a difference. The reward of that first step will help to motivate you toward a grateful state of mind.
Here are a few resources:
Parenting books that discuss gratefulness
Carter, C. (2011). Raising happiness; Ten simple steps for more joyful kids and happier parents. NY: Ballantine Books.
Hawn, G. & Holden, W. (2011). Ten mindful minutes. NY: Perigee.
Rubin, G. (2012). Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project,
Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life. NY: Crown Archetype Publishing Group.
Childrens’ books on appreciating what you have
Berenstain, S., & Berenstain, J. (1995). The Berenstain Bears count their blessings. Random House Books for Young Readers.
Wilson, K. (2012). Bear says thanks. NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books.
Childrens’ books on appreciating who you are
McCue, L. (2011). Quiet bunny’s many colors. NY: Sterling Children’s Books.
Tillman, N. (2010). On the night you were born. NY: Feiwel & Friends.
Cusimano, M. (2001). You are my I love you. NY: Philomel.
Children’s book on appreciating nature
Yolen, J. (1987). Owl moon. NY: Scholastic.
Originally published on Medium on December 15, 2015.