We’ve all seen it. It’s Christmas, and your child is madly unwrapping every gift with lightning speed, stopping only to glance at the content before moving on to the next gift. A simple “thank you” or even an acknowledgement to the giver is somehow lost in the excitement of the moment. Hard to believe it was just “Thanksgiving” a few weeks earlier! So, what happened to gratitude?
If your child is young—under 6 years old—he may not grasp the concept of gratitude, so the most you can hope for is a parroted back “thank you” when you demand it. But for older kids, gratitude should be learned and embraced by children, for their own sakes, if not only for the benefit of others. “Children who exhibit high levels of gratitude are less materialistic, have better relationships and earn higher grades,” according to School Psychologist Jeffrey J. Froh, PsyD. “Additionally, they are less likely to engage in risky or dangerous behavior—even into their teen years!”
Instilling gratitude in children also prepares them for adulthood. With the exception of those living in poverty, most children in the United States have all their needs met. They receive food, clothing and material goods through little effort of their own. Such a lifestyle can breed a sense of entitlement if a child is not taught to be thankful for all that he has been given. Once a child has the proper perspective—that what he has is the result of another’s kindness—he can acknowledge his own interdependency and better appreciate other people in his life. This will make for better working relationships in the future.
Research has also shown that grateful children are actually happier and more content than those who focus on their problems. “Counting blessings seems to be an effective intervention for well-being enhancement in early adolescents,” according to a study of sixth and seventh graders by the Journal of School Psychology.
Unfortunately, gratitude doesn’t come as naturally as negativity does. So try these tips for teaching gratitude to your child during the holidays and throughout the New Year. You and your child may both be happier as a result!
Make Gratitude a Habit
Many families have a tradition at Thanksgiving to go around the table and have everyone say one thing that they are thankful for. This is an excellent exercise to practice year-round that can build an attitude of gratitude in children. It can also be a good way to begin a conversation with your child. Choose a time each day—at dinner, before bed, after school—when your child tells you one or two things he is thankful for that day. Too often we can focus on what went wrong on a given day; this new habit will refocus the family on what was good about the day. Studies show that making a concerted effort to look for the positive every day will actually rewire our brains. According to author and researcher Shawn Achor, “When we practice looking for and being more aware of positive aspects of life, we fight off the brain’s natural tendency to scan for and spot the negatives.”
Say “Thanks” Daily
Encourage your kids to say “thank you,” to at least one person for something each day. They can text, email, phone or tell them directly that they appreciate something the other person did. It could be a family member, a teacher, another student, or maybe a service worker such as the bus driver, a sales clerk or DMV worker. This daily act will teach them to begin to recognize the actions of others and be more appreciative. They can use this practice to keep in touch with relatives living further away. A quick text to grandparents to say thanks for their encouragement can mean a lot!
Go Window Shopping Instead of Buying
Teach your kids that shopping doesn’t always mean buying or getting. Tell them that today is just for looking when you go to the mall. They may make note of things they want, but no purchases will be made. Such delayed gratification will teach them to appreciate the item once they receive it. And they won’t connect shopping with always purchasing, which can be a bad habit for the budget.
Get Educated for a New Perspective
When kids spend time only with those in the same income bracket, they may forget that there are others who have much less. It may seem as if most people have enough to eat and enjoy the newest cell phones and iPads available. The fact is, however, even in the US, fifty million people go hungry everyday due to poverty, including one in four children! By introducing your children to the plight of families struggling with food insecurities, you will give them a new perspective on their own lives. Remind them that plentiful food and clean drinking water are not available for everyone. One way to educate kids in this area is to view a documentary, such as A Place at the Table, which examines the issue of hunger in America by highlighting the lives of three families who struggle with poverty.
By volunteering to help others in need, your kids will gain a better sense of what they have compared to others who are less fortunate. And they will learn to focus on others in the process. And children who volunteer will reap other benefits in addition to learning gratitude, such as learning new skills, developing compassion, and building confidence. Here are six ways you can start volunteering with your kids.
Fast from Excess
One way to be grateful for something is to have to live without it. Pick one thing that your child may take for granted and ask them to go without it for one week. Maybe it is a favorite TV show or even a week of television, the use of the computer or a cellphone. One week without these luxuries will demonstrate to children just how grateful they should be for what they have. Maybe your child walks to school or sports practice (if nearby) instead of getting that ride he tends to take for granted.
Find the Silver Lining
Make a game of finding the positive in every bad situation. If there is a line at the grocery store, remind the kids that they are fortunate to be taking home a cart full of food. If the cell phone battery needs recharging, tell them how life was before cell phones. This type of activity puts many problems in perspective. Even when things go wrong, they have much to be grateful for. This “Weird Al” Yankovic video, “First World Problems,” offers a funny take on how easy it can be to fall into an ungrateful attitude in our overindulgent culture.
Try these steps for teaching gratitude to your children this holiday season and maybe this year when the family gathers to open presents, you’ll hear the sound of “thank-you,” and not just the ripping of wrapping paper.