“Gratefulness is a knowing awareness that we are the recipients of goodness” —Robert Emmons
By Kristen S. Bourgault (Recycled from November 2013, Edition 1)
Of the many things we all strive to teach our children, perhaps one of the most important is gratitude. A life filled with gratitude is a life where we appreciate all that we have rather than constantly strive for something more. In many ways gratitude is at the heart of our own happiness—taking the time to be grateful for our blessings can help us to focus on the present and feel a sense of contentment. According to Dr. Robert A. Emmons, author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, “Gratitude is literally one of the few things that can measurably change peoples’ lives…In daily studies of emotional experience, when people report feeling grateful, thankful and appreciative, they also feel more loving, forgiving, joyful and enthusiastic.”
Children may seem ungrateful by nature. The words “please” and “thank you” are some of the very first that we teach them, and most of us find ourselves constantly repeating those phrases in an attempt to make them become second nature. From the time our kids are born, they are helped and supported by everyone around them, even if they do not have the insight to understand or appreciate it. It takes a significant amount of focus, energy and persistence to instill in our children a sense of gratitude for the life they have been given. For the youngest children, it may even be impossible for their developing minds to fully grasp the concept of gratitude. Based on research by Froh, Miller and Snyder, children do not seem to truly express or experience gratitude until around six to eight years of age.
So how can we teach gratitude to our children and help them understand the power of giving thanks? The most obvious strategy is to consistently remind them to say “thank you” for the things they are given—from the food they eat, the birthday gifts they receive, the small kindnesses and favors they are treated to each day. Getting children into the habit of using these words from a young age is important, and modeling that behavior yourself is an even stronger way to reinforce it. However, our constant pressure to say the words may not always help children to fully grasp the meaning of gratitude. We must go beyond these words and help children understand the reason why we say them.
Developing gratitude takes time and diligence—reminding yourself to pause and encourage children to look around at everything they have been given needs to become a habitual process. According to Dr. Miller’s research on cultivating gratitude, “Experiencing and expressing gratitude does not come naturally; it is a learned process and sometimes an effortful one, and it requires a certain level of inner reflection and introspection.” This introspection can be encouraged in your kids’ daily lives by building in a regular family routine of taking inventory of all the blessings around you.
What makes the practice of regular gratitude and thankfulness so important? Habitual practices of daily gratitude, such as sitting down and recording the things that you have to be grateful for within a given day, have been linked to increased happiness and satisfaction with life.
The simple act of recording three things you are grateful for at the end of a busy day can fill you with positive feelings and change your perspective. “Writing helps to organize thoughts and facilitate integration, and also helps you to accept your own experiences and put them into context,” says Dr. Emmons.
Gratitude can also help us build a sense of connectedness and community, a feeling of being a part of something bigger. When you take the time to look around and appreciate all of the people and things that have helped you to move forward, be successful, and enjoy your life, the people you interact with start to take on a different light. You find yourself no longer taking things for granted, but rather appreciating how we are all part of a greater community, and how we all rely on each other for support. Dr. Emmons states that “binding people together in relationships of reciprocity, gratitude is one of the building blocks of a civil and human society…Encouraging people to focus on the benefits they have received from others leads them to feel loved and cared for by others.”
The Gratitude Tree. Start a new tradition this year by creating a Gratitude Tree. Go for a quick walk through your backyard or a take a walk in the woods and find an elaborate but reasonably sized tree branch. Using any kind of construction paper and ribbon or yarn, create paper cutouts in the shape of leaves. Even your youngest kids can help with this task, as leaves come in all shapes and sizes. Punch a hole in each leaf and loop a piece of yarn through it for hanging. Throughout the year, take a moment each night after dinner to distribute a leaf to the people around your table. Have each person record something they are grateful for, either from that day or life in general. You will start to see many creative answers, especially from the children—you might hear “mom, the cat, chocolate cake, video games, cozy blankets.” Each night, hang the leaves on the tree. Each month, pull down all of the leaves and read them out loud to remember the blessings you have received during that time.
Thank-You Cards. The art of writing thank-you cards is something you can begin to instill in your children from a very young age. Even the smallest of children can participate in the process by helping with the creation of the cards and taking a moment to sit and talk about the gifts they’ve received. For young children, create a stack of blank cards and provide them with paint, markers and stickers. Sit them down and have them create a card for each gift. Creative kids may be interested in drawing a picture of the gift itself, while others may prefer to create abstract art. (Once they go to bed, use the time to handwrite the notes yourself.) You may also find it useful to print out thank-you cards online—there are many fun templates that children can use to fill in simple words to describe the gifts.
As children grow older, they will be able to sign their names to the cards, and eventually, children should be encouraged to write the cards themselves. Set up a card box with all of the supplies, including fancy pens, stamps and envelopes. Making this a habitual practice in your home will have surprising results. And remember that the strongest way to teach kids to do something is to model it yourself—make sure your kids see you writing out cards of your own so they can learn by example.
For those days when you just don’t have the time to sit and handwrite a card, consider how quickly technology can help you convey your feelings of thankfulness for the people and things in your life. Snap a photo of your child wearing the new sweater their grandmother knit them, or playing with the set of blocks sent from a friend. Taking a moment to appreciate these simple gestures by sending a quick text message or posting a Facebook photo can brighten someone’s day and also foster your own feelings of gratitude.
Small Offerings of Thanks. Family and friends are not the only ones who deserve our thanks. We encounter many people daily who help us in ways large and small. Choose a time of the year when you can show your appreciation to all of those people in your community. Sit with your children, even very young children, and compose a list of the people in your neighborhood who enhance your lives on a daily basis. Your list can include people like police officers, crossing guards, postal workers, firefighters, bank tellers, teachers, coaches, librarians, town landscapers, anyone you encounter regularly who helps you in some way. Involve your children in the process of creating small and easy treats—think along the lines of little bags of candy (Hershey’s Kisses wrapped in tissue with a ribbon), homemade cookies, jars of trail mix or handmade bookmarks. Put the treats in a basket in your car or by your front door, and hand them out as you encounter those people each day. Encourage your children to be the ones to walk up and hand the treats out with a “thank you” to help reinforce the idea that we have much to be grateful for.
If Dr. Emmons’s research teaches us anything, it is that feeling and expressing gratitude is a life-changing and life-enhancing experience. In a country so divided and filled with negativity, being grateful can help bring more love, light and happiness into our world. We can all, children and adults, benefit by remembering to be grateful.