Helping Children Learn and Develop Gratitude Practices
Gratitude turns what we have into enough. -Melody Beattie
We all want happy and healthy children! For me, gratitude is the most important practice in cultivating happiness; in ourselves and in our kids. Think of something right now that you don’t have, maybe even something that someone else has that you want. How do you feel? Now, think of your gratitude for something small in your life that without it, everyday would be harder. How do you feel now? When I complete this exercise, I feel thankful and humbled and content. I wonder if some of those feelings arose in you as well? Think of the gift we can give our children if we help them learn about and develop their own gratitude practices!
There are multiple ways we can set out to complete this important task, but here are a few of my personal favorites and the ones I use with my own child and the children and teens I work with.
Encourage service to others-This can be as small as chores and responsibilities at home (cleaning the table after dinner, feeding the dog, helping to carry in groceries) or much bigger church or community service projects and volunteer work. If your child understands what it means and how it feels to do for others, then it will be easier to name feelings of gratitude when someone else is of service to them. Don’t forget to teach your kids about the connection between helping others and feeling gratitude. This will further help them to recognize all that they have to be grateful for, and how many others (many they don’t even know) contribute to making their lives better.
Practice gratitude yourself; model and teach this value to your children-As with so many other parts of parenting, there is no cheat code. Talk is cheap when it comes to children, and especially teenagers. You have to teach through your actions! There is increasingly more research on the effects of gratitude and wellbeing, and one study found a significant relationship between Mother and child gratitude. The more a parent (and specifically a Mother by the study’s findings) reported experiences of gratitude, the more grateful their children. Being present and aware of all you have to be thankful for, and speaking those things out loud more often will make a profound difference on the level of happiness you are able to experience. This will make you a more effective parent all around. Your kids will also get to notice first hand what being grateful looks like day-to-day and they are much more likely to do-as-you-do, than do-as-you-say!
Help kids understand their own values so they can name what’s most important to them-It may be easier for them to appreciate and show gratefulness for something they already find value in (helping others, kindness, creativity, fun, family, safety) than asking them to be grateful for their vegetables, or the opportunity to get an education. We may spark more motivation to cultivate gratitude practice if we can help them name and understand their values (especially if they differ from ours) because we all have things that are meaningful to us for which it would be easy to be grateful! Try listing your own values and look for the ones that are most important for you to pass along to your children. Chances are, if you have modeled these values, your kids may also share some of those, but don’t forget that kids may have some different values (play, fun, freedom) that you may or may not share. Here is a list of books to help teach your children important values.
Have another character teach them-I love to use books for teaching gratitude! I am certain you have had the experience of having your child see anyone but you as an expert on life! I don’t argue, I read books. The stories are entertaining and playful and engage children by allowing them to follow along, imagining where the story will lead, and recalling upon the character’s struggles and values while they are learning their own gratitude practice. A few of my favorites are: The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein; Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are, by Dr. Seuss, It Could Always Be Worse, by Margot Zemach and The Berenstain Bears Count Their Blessings, by Stan Berenstain. Here is a great list of books for children if you would like to explore more! For teenagers and adults, these books would be great to read and discuss!
Appreciate the awe of nature- Children are usually better at this naturally, so maybe we can all just follow their lead a little more! When is the last time you looked at a leaf in awe, or the rain, or sky, or beautiful sunset? We are lucky to live in a beautiful part of the country with an abundance of opportunities to experience nature. This can be as simple as a nature walk around your neighborhood being grateful for the trees that supply oxygen or the rain drops that bring us water. Getting out in nature more often is good for the soul! We are meant to connect with nature and
Create family gratitude practices-I love journals and gratitude jars for a quick and easy way to start taking inventory of all you may have to be grateful for. Writing down what we are thankful for helps us to organize our ideas and our lives so that we are better able to make meaning out of it. It’s also rewarding to visualize just how many things there are to say thank-you for in our lives, and this can be great for kids who may get stuck in thinking that if they experience something negative, there is nothing to be thankful for. Getting stuck in thinking traps like this can happen often throughout a child’s development.
Gratitude is a fruit of great cultivation.
Teaching gratitude is not a destination, but a journey. There is no quick fix that will instantly create grateful, humble, and content children, so gratitude will need to be cultivated daily. Be creative in expressing your own gratitude and helping to teach and foster the art of being THANKFUL in your children!