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Cultivating Gratitude

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, GRATITUDE is on many people's minds.

But as much as we may focus on it on Thanksgiving itself, we often find that focus disappears at midnight as we, as a culture, get caught up in the frenzy of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the steady (and rapid) march toward the holidays. But thinking about gratitude once a year really isn't enough…turns out it takes a little more effort. And that effort is worth it!

Why is gratitude important?

Put simply, it makes us happier! Research in the field of positive psychology has demonstrated that gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with positive emotions (happiness!), improved physical health, better resilience, and strong relationships. And from a practical standpoint, it just makes our kids (and partners, etc.) more enjoyable to be around!

How do we cultivate gratitude for our kids?

First and foremost, we have to build strong, secure, and attached relationships based on true connection with our children because gratitude is strongly linked to interpersonal trust. In other words, positive relationships are critical for raising grateful kids.

Second, we have to model gratitude and mean it.  Modeling is the number one way that children learn how to interact in the world.  If we are yellers, for example, the odds are pretty good that our children will grow up to be yellers.  As adults, we get busy and we take things for granted, and far too often, I see adults forgetting to demonstrate gratitude or even neglecting the simple but powerful act of just saying “thanks.”  With the children in my world, it is usually pretty clear who sees gratitude modeled at home—the ones who regularly show thanks when they are in my home are also the ones whose parents say thank you.

What effect does our culture of “immediate gratification” have on our kids?

A significant—and not necessarily positive—one.  For starters, many of us live among immense relative wealth, and we are a highly consumer culture.  Second, when we want something, we are often able to get it nearly immediately.  When most of us were kids, if you wanted to watch a movie, you had to wait in line on a Friday evening at Blockbuster and hope that there would be a copy of our favorite title available.  That is not the case at all now—now, we just go to Netflix or Amazon and it’s at our fingertips.  Our children, in many cases, don’t understand the value in waiting for something or earning something. When we need or want something, often we just buy it. And as convenient as that is—and don’t get me wrong—I love it as much as the next person—it is not helping our children learn gratitude.

What are some practical tips for instilling gratitude?

Aside from modeling, there are some concrete steps we can take to help our children foster the important emotional experience of gratitude:

  1. We can require our children to participate in family work—a term the positive discipline philosophy encourages over chores, which has such a negative connotation.  Family work are the tasks around our home that benefit the entire family.  This could include vacuuming, taking out the trash, doing laundry, etc.  Or it could be helping an older relative, caring for a sibling, solving computer problems, researching a large purchase, etc.  Notably, it does not include things like making the bed, or tidying your room—those are important, but are not for the benefit of the entire family in the same way.

  2. Share gratitudes and appreciations on a regular basis.  Our family has a weekly family meeting and at that meeting each person shares an appreciation for every other person, including themselves.  Again, this allows children to learn by modeling and also provides them with an opportunity to really think about how they are thankful for their parents and siblings.

  3. Encourage gratitude and service daily in the questions you ask your children. Two of my favorite questions to ask after school or at dinner are “Tell me something you’re GRATEFUL for today,” and “Tell me something KIND you did today,” It generates some insightful conversations and opportunities to share values.

  4. Spend time teaching your children the value of money. Share with them how to manage a budget, encourage them to save for things they want (rather than always buying it for them), and help them learn the importance of giving to people and causes that need our support. Let them choose a cause that is important to them and encourage them to donate regularly. Every other year for my daughter’s birthday, she asks her friends to donate to a cause that matters to her rather than bring her presents—it’s a great way to get everyone involved in something bigger than themselves.

  5. Put extra thought into this around the holidays. I invite families to consider finding a variety of ways to make the season more about giving rather than getting for their children. For example, we have an advent calendar that we use and on some days my children get small little gifts, but on others, we do Random Acts of Kindness, and on others, we find ways to celebrate the season simply by spending time together as a family. Then, in response to any gifts they receive I require my children (once they’re old enough to write) to send thank you notes, and I send them myself. Again, there is no substitute for modeling.

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Christy Keating fun headshot

Christy Keating is a certified parent coach,  positive discipline educator, and motivational speaker. She is the founder and CEO of The Heartful Parent Collective, which includes Heartful Parent Coaching, Savvy Parents Safe Kids, and Heartful Parent Academy.

The mother of two amazing daughters, Christy strives to build a happier, healthier world - one child, one parent, and one family at a time.