Teaching gratitude every day

Parents often say they want their children to be “happy.” It is one way that many parents actually measure their worth as parents. A 2003 study at University of California Davis indicates that grateful people show high levels of happiness and optimism (along with lower levels of stress). “The ability to notice, appreciate and savor the elements of one’s life” is essential to happiness according to the researchers. SO if you want your kids to be happy, teach them gratitude. And this is a great time of year to start.

Here are some ways NOT to teach gratitude:

  • Giving lectures about gratitude. This inspires boredom, as do all lectures.
  • Telling your children that there are others in the world who have a lot less. This teaches guilt.
  • Threatening to give your children less so they will appreciate what they have. This inspires resentment and maybe more guilt.
The UC Davis study notes that students who kept a gratitude journal four times a week resulted in significant improvements in happiness and well-being including a more optimistic outlook, increased connectedness to others and better and longer sleep. So, how can we teach gratitude to our children? Find ways to create rituals of gratitude in every day life. Consider some of these:
  1. Dinnertime Appreciations – Gratitude isn’t just for Thanksgiving. Every night at dinner in our house, we held hands and each person shared one thing they appreciated about the day. We learned things that were going on in each other’s lives and we sometimes appreciated each other. Even as a surly teenager, our daughter happily engaged in this family ritual. She was always able to find something to appreciate – sometimes even her parents, surprisingly. Most moving to me is that my stepson and nephew now do it with their kids. I feel like we created a legacy of gratitude in our family that may last for generations.
  2. Bedtime Appreciations – Parent and child take a turn saying one thing they appreciate about each other that day. This teaches children to stop and reflect positively on their day. It also helps them understand an important aspect of emotional intelligence – that their behavior affects the feelings of others.
  3. Appreciations Cards, Posters and T-shirts – We used roles of blank newsprint paper for a variety of art projects, but the most important one was the birthday banner. We wrote the name of the birthday person in big letters and around it everyone in the family wrote things about the person that we appreciated: smart, strong, helpful, etc. This was one way of celebrating that wasn’t about buying stuff. It also taught the kids about the traits we valued and to which they may want to aspire. Taking the time to focus so carefully on one person in the family also taught thoughtfulness and attunement. We often created similar appreciation birthday cards and on very special occasions, we created a t-shirt for that person with the appreciations permanently affixed, to be worn with pride. At birthday dinners, the appreciations were focused not on what we appreciated about the day, but about the person whose birthday we were celebrating. It was touching to see the children increase their capacities to notice others, articulate positive traits and describe those traits so generously.
  4. Thank You Notes – Help even young children write notes of gratitude for gifts, experiences or just time together with loved ones. Kids love art projects and these will have the additional value of teaching gratitude. You may also want to write a letter of gratitude to one person who has meant a lot to you in your life – putting it all on paper can be powerful. Sometimes I would write letters of appreciation to family members (one time I signed it from Santa) and put them into Christmas stockings or tie them onto Chanukah gifts. You can invite children to do the same. And kids really love receiving them.
  5. Frequent Thank-You’s – So easy to do (and to overlook). We often take for granted those tasks that each family member carries out on a regular basis. Remembering to say thank you more frequently not only teaches gratitude, but a secondary gain is that it increases the likelihood that those tasks will be done more regularly. It may be your child’s job to feed the cat, but thanking her sometimes will help. Your husband may empty the dishwasher or your wife do the shopping – saying thanks out loud can change the whole experience. And it teaches your children one of life’s most important lessons – to savor our daily gifts.
If you want happy kids, it seems gratitude is an important way to get there.
Please send along your ideas. How are you building gratitude into your family life?
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