It’s probably the second most frequently spoken sentence in conversations with our children, trailing behind “I love you,” of course.
“What do you say?” we ask after they tear open birthday gifts, blast through holiday treats and welcome unexpected surprises.
As parents, we remind our children that manners matter and courtesy counts. From writing thank-you notes for gifts to making a phone call to “Gramma” for the cookies she baked, we want our children to learn to express gratitude.
But there’s more to being grateful than a perfunctory gesture performed because mom or dad said so.
Gratitude isn’t just about being thankful for beautifully wrapped packages that come on a holiday. Gratitude is about being thankful for things in everyday life: the brilliant blue sky, snowflakes dancing in the moonlight, food on our tables, shoes on our feet and a warm bed to sleep in.
According to a study published in the Journal of School Psychology, gratitude is directly related to enhanced well-being and overall satisfaction with life. The study, which focused on children ages 8 – 12 years old, showed that being genuinely grateful for all things (not just gifts!) contributes to overall happiness and well-being.
In learning gratitude, our children also learn about caring for others. They become more sensitive to the needs of others and learn about compassion.
This time of year, there’s more talk about gratitude – from school projects and Facebook challenges to giving thanks around the holiday dinner table. We think more about being grateful, which in and of itself can make us feel good.
It’s never too early to start teaching an attitude of gratitude in our children (which isn’t easy for toddlers, who are naturally self-centered).
Here are some ways to get started:
Make gratitude part of your daily discussion.
Talk about non-material things for which you are grateful. Ask your children about people who they enjoy spending time with, and discuss the importance of being grateful for relationships. At the dinner table, allow each family member to share something for which they are thankful in that moment or that happened during the day.
Keep it simple.
With younger children, model gratitude in simple ways. “Thank you for sharing your smile with me.” “I am so grateful we have such a friendly dog as part of our family.” Children learn that we can be grateful for little things in our daily life – like a heart-shaped sandwich or a heartfelt hug.
Learn to say “no.”
When our children get everything they want, they don’t learn gratitude. They learn entitlement, and that happiness comes from “stuff.” By saying “no,” we give our children the opportunity to appreciate what they have.
Start a gratitude journal.
Provide a blank book for your child to creatively give thanks. In words, drawings or photographs, your child can express things for which they are grateful each day.
Create a gratitude jar.
Have your child write (or help them write) things for which they are grateful on small slips of paper. Or, create a gratitude jar for your child that lists on slips of paper things you are thankful for about him/her. The positive feeling they will get from reading about what you are grateful for can boost their self-esteem, and help them see that being grateful can be about simple things such as a smile or a hug.
Help children learn to give.
Many churches and some malls have “giving trees” with requests for gifts for those who are less fortunate. Allow your child to pick out a gift request from the tree, then shop together for the requested item. Children can experience the joy in giving selflessly.
Volunteer every day in small ways.
There are things we can do in our everyday lives that will have a positive impact on someone else. Shovel snow for a neighbor, cook a meal for a family in need or with a new baby, pick up litter when you see it.
Gratitude is contagious. The more you share it, the better you feel.