Gratitude is one of the greatest gifts we can offer our children. A more thankful attitude as they move through life improves their overall happiness and well-being — into adolescence and far into adulthood.
But encouraging gratitude in our kids does not have to take a lot of time and effort — nor must it consist of big, powerful events designed to make a splash. It is all in some key words and deeds. Here are some “get grateful quick” strategies to try with your family.
1: Make this a family affair.
Children learn by imitation. They’re more likely to learn from what they see us do rather than what we tell them to do. Make it a point to incorporate gratitude into your daily routine as a family even in the smallest of ways. Tell your children what you feel particularly thankful for as you drive them to school in the morning, for example, or when you tuck them into bed at night.
This can become a wonderful routine for young children. As children age into the "tween" and teenage years, continue to articulate your gratitude for them, even if your comments are met with an eye roll. Adolescents, despite any resistance they may show, still observe and learn from the behaviors of their parents. Turn moments of expressing gratitude into opportunities for connection and conversation, and help to encourage a daily practice of being thankful.
It is important not to force the issue if your children are not immediately interested. Just continue articulating your own gratitude. You will be demonstrating an important idea they will absorb over time.
2: Make gratitude tangible.
It can help children to visualize the idea of gratitude, in order to make it a more concrete concept for them. For example, a fun idea is a "Happy Jar." As a family, write down on a piece of paper what made each person feel particularly happy that day. Fold the papers up and drop them into the jar. They can be taken out and shared at the end of a week, month, or year, as a way to remember all of the pleasurable moments that were experienced over time.
In my family, the "Happy Jar" has become a nightly ritual that we all look forward to. We enjoy reflecting on the day and sharing what made each of us particularly grateful. Even on days when we don't place our notes into the jar, the kids — my daughter is 9, my son, 8 — still enjoy the visual of the jar full of colorful pieces of paper sitting on the countertop. It serves as a reminder to notice opportunities for gratitude. Other ideas include reading children’s books that foster gratitude, or creating a gratitude journal together.
3: Make gratitude simple.
Remind kids that we can be grateful for the simplest of things in life. Point out a bright, sunny day, a delicious strawberry, a good grade at school. As simple as these may seem, the act of noticing the small pleasures in life can help to cultivate joy.
We want to teach our children that we often take important blessings such as clean running water, good food, and even our health for granted. We also want them to learn that, although we can be grateful for "big" moments like trips to Disneyland or a special birthday party, most often a meaningful gratitude practice comes from paying attention to the beauty in ordinary moments. This is especially important to remember as children get older.
Adolescents might be vulnerable to comparing themselves to their peers, sometimes resulting in a sense of unworthiness or low self-esteem. Reminding our growing teenagers of the small blessings in life can help them maintain perspective.
As children grow, the entire family can also participate in community service activities, which help to remind all of us about the many things we take for granted on a daily basis.
It can be challenging to learn concepts such as mindfulness, compassion, and gratitude as adults. As we grow from childhood into adulthood, our outlook and our behaviors start to become more neurologically hardwired and automatic. As a result, it takes a more focused effort to change our patterns. Encouraging these behaviors from a young age can help provide a strong foundation for our children, right from the start. The fundamentals of resilience and well-being begin in childhood.
Let’s help our children, and ourselves, by sharing the importance of gratitude in creating a happy, healthy life.
Monisha Vasa, M.D., is a board-certified general and addiction psychiatrist in Orange County, California, and the author of the children’s books, "My Dearest One" and "Saying Thank You."
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