Growing Gratitude in Our Children

The leaves are changing, the fall harvest is making its way to our tables, and the season of Thanksgiving is upon us. Displays of gratitude are everywhere this time of year, and it’s important to instill a sense of thankfulness in children, particularly given the looming onslaught of holiday ads in the near future.

Gratitude is a proven antidote to greed. It causes us to change our focus from what we don’t have, to what we already have and are thankful for. Sometimes the small things, like just being glad we have clothes on our backs and air in our lungs, are enough to shift our perspective. Cultivating the recognition of what we’re already blessed with is critically important in childhood.

“It’s foundational in who they will become as adults. Your goal as a parent is to raise children to be adults who are well-balanced and givers back to the community and society,” said Cari Roush, coordinator of Moms of Preschoolers (MOPs) at Emmanuel Baptist Church. “The important part of thankfulness is that it just allows you to be grateful for what you have, and it breeds contentment. We live in a culture now that’s just so inundated with stuff and things that it’s easy to become very selfish and self-serving if we’re not careful.”

The benefits of gratitude are two-fold. It helps us to avoid acting like jerks, but it actually benefits us too. For the past decade, much research has been devoted to the subject of happiness. Not surprisingly, being grateful actually fosters happiness. A study done by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, indicates that being grateful can actually increase happiness by roughly 25 percent. Findings also showed that grateful individuals generally have higher levels of self-esteem, along with optimism, hope, and empathy. For children, this gratitude can also translate to better attitudes about school and family.

So how can you cultivate that sense of thankfulness in your children? Roush offers a variety of practical ideas:

  1. Citing the old adage “more is caught than taught,” Roush encourages parents to model gratefulness in both words and attitude.
  2. If you are a praying family, pray together. A big part of prayer is offering thanks.
  3. Require children to have manners from an early age. Teach them to say thank you.
  4. Set boundaries on things; sometimes that means taking things away or having set times to use an item to encourage appreciation for what they have.
  5. Expose yourself and your family to others in need; children need to see that we live in a world where many have less than we do and that it’s important to share.
  6. Choose a nonprofit or specific family that you can give to as a family.

In our home, we’ve opted to keep an informal family journal. Every night after bedtime stories and before prayers, each person offers up a few things that happened that day for which he or she is grateful. This serves a couple of purposes. First, it prompts us to look for things that we’re thankful for throughout the day. Knowing that I will be held accountable to outline the goodness in my day makes me keep an eye out for it and stash it in my memory. This simple, five-minute ritual every night has had a profound impact. Instead of giving in to our natural inclination to think of everything that went wrong, we’re focused on finding the goodness in the day.

Keeping a written journal also means we have a record of the good stuff from the year. When young children are involved, their answers can be pretty awesome. I’m not a scrapbooker, but this is a totally painless way to capture the big moments like riding a bike for the first time, down to the smaller things like being excited about finding a ladybug or seeing a helicopter fly over our house. And doing this at the end of the day sends everyone off to bed on a good note.

Start small and find something that works for your family. I’m thankful we did.

article and photo by Stephanie Hobby

Originally printed in the pages of Simply Family Magazine’s November 2018 issue.

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