According to research, thankful children are happy children. Georgina Blaskey reveals how gratitude starts at home
My son came home with a chart from school recently in which they had to fill in three things every day for a week: firstly, a good thing about today; secondly, something I am grateful for; thirdly, I will make someone smile tomorrow by… It was a school-wide exercise for prep-age children to make them aware of the importance of gratitude, an emotion we experience most days as, ‘say thank you’ or ‘stop feeling sorry for yourself’, but in fact, is a mindset with
far-reaching implications way more powerful.
Before we look at what methods such as a gratitude chart can teach our children, it’s vital to understand why it matters. Gratitude is healthy – physically and mentally – so as a practice, it’s as relevant to adults as children. Demonstrating gratitude can open up new relationships, as good manners can win people over, so teaching those please and thank yous from a young age will count. A 2012 study found that grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology in America, has conducted multiple studies on the link between gratitude and wellbeing – his research confirms that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression. When you practice gratitude, you’re less likely to feel stressed, envious and negative. In terms of self-esteem, studies have shown that gratitude reduces social comparisons. Rather than becoming resentful toward people who have more money or better jobs – a major factor in reduced self-esteem in adults – grateful people are able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments. Recognising all you have, even in the most challenging times, will make you mentally stronger.
Imagine if we could train our children to practise gratitude so it becomes their default way of thinking. We could empower them to approach everything they do with hope and optimism. One of the key aspects gratitude gives us – both adults and children – is perspective. Educating children to understand that what they have – toys, clothes, privileges and opportunities – comes from someone else, which develops an understanding of how interdependent we are. By being aware of who and what makes their lives possible, kids should become less self-centred, appreciating what they have rather than what they don’t have. Parents can model this behaviour, too, by saying thank you to people, to each other, and even to their children! It teaches them that when someone does something for you it’s good to think about it and to verbalise it.
The key is to be grateful for the small things, rather than looking to material items. Andrea Reiser, an author and happiness coach, has these tips:
Name your blessings
Have a moment each day when everyone shares something they’re thankful for. Whether the list includes a favourite toy, a particularly good piano lesson or a birthday card from granny, this daily tradition can help develop a positive frame of mind. Older kids might even prefer to keep a gratitude journal and write down a few things they are thankful for each day before going to bed.
Resist the urge to shower them with too much ‘stuff’
The old adage ‘all things in moderation’ is a useful guideline here. Buying kids whatever they want, whenever they want, dilutes the gratitude impulse and can mean they don’t learn to value their possessions. They wind up having so much stuff, they don’t appreciate each toy or device, as they keep setting their sights on what’s shinier and newer.
Have them pitch in when they want something
When kids themselves take the time to save up, they have an ownership stake in the purchase and gain an understanding of the value of money by working toward what they want. It also teaches restraint and encourages kids to appreciate what they have, as well as giving them a more realistic perspective on what you and others do for them.
Keep thank-you notes on hand
They are a perfect way to encourage kids to express gratitude – and as an added bonus, it can make the recipient’s day. There are loads of opportunities for kids to thank those who have done something special for them, and it’s a habit that if they start young, they’ll naturally carry throughout life. It’s important that kids compose and handwrite the notes themselves, and we as parents can set the example by making sure to write our own thank-you notes on a variety of occasions.
Say ‘thank you’ sincerely and often
The values our kids embrace as they get older aren’t those we nag them into learning, but the ones they see us living out. There are countless opportunities every day for us to model gratitude for our kids.
Encourage them to give back
The old saying ‘it’s better to give than to receive’ has stuck around for a reason. It really does feel great to help someone else out. Depending on their age, kids can rake leaves for an elderly neighbour or volunteer a few hours a week. You might even make service a family activity. When kids give their time to help others, they’re less likely to take things like health, home and family for granted.
Look for teachable moments
Sure, we all take the opportunity to have periodic conversations about values with our children – but the key is to keep our eyes open for situations that eloquently illustrate our point. We need to seize those moments and be prepared to use them as the powerful teaching aids they are. When kids can connect the concept of gratitude to a real-life situation, the lesson we’re teaching will be much more likely to stick.
Find the silver lining
It’s human nature to see the glass half empty from time to time. When kids complain, it can be helpful to try to find a response that looks on the bright side. It’s called an ‘attitude of gratitude’ for a reason – it’s about perspective more than circumstance. Sometimes it’s tempting to wallow in self-pity; as parents we need to remember it’s more productive to teach our kids to be resilient, and refocus them on the positives.