One time when one of my boys was about four years old I found myself in a common battle trying to get him to clean take care of his belongings and clean up the toys that were scattered about his play room. I felt good about our system and knew that I was not asking him to complete a task that was outside his ability to complete. We had cleaned the room successfully on a number of occasions. Finally, out of frustration, I told my son that if he did not clean up the toys I was going to gather them up, put them in a garbage bag, and give them to children who didn't have any toys. I left the room and, to bolster my threat, returned seconds later with a large trash bag. My son approached me with an armful of toys and dropped them passionately in to the open bag. Baffled, I asked "what are you doing?" and tearfully he replied "I didn't know there were kids without any toys."
My heart ached. Not that he had discovered something so disturbing to him, not that I hadn't really intended to make good on my promise, and not even that there actually are children without toys...in that moment my heart ached because I had failed to help instill in him a sense of interconnectedness among our society. I had a hard moment of realization that this little person was so willing to give of himself and of his most prized possessions and I had not yet given him the opportunity. Our young children, at their most vulnerable and impressionable development deserve to practice, recognize and express gratitude. Before they are swept away in a growing world of immediate gratification, online shopping, and disconnected communication we should be giving our children true practice with the gift of gratitude.
Gratitude is a conscious process. One that takes practice, patience, and a deep consciousness that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Gratitude is scientifically proven to make people more happy. Research from the Greater Good Science Center tells us that "gratitude actually blocks toxic emotions even as it allows us to celebrate the present. What’s more, grateful people are more stress-resistant and have a higher sense of self-worth." Who doesn't want that for their children? Gosh, who doesn't want that for themselves?
So, how do we teach our children gratitude?
- Gratitude, as a character trait, must first be instilled through your children's most influential role model - YOU. Model gratitude for your child. Express gratitude in their presence regularly. Recognize that any amount of gratitude can not co-exist in an environment of annoyance or criticism. Saturate your environment in gratitude and, even in times of irritation or misdeed, seek out the good and say, out loud, that which you are grateful for.
- Give children opportunities to participate, make decisions, and develop awareness of the many tasks and responsibilities surrounding them. Do not allow your children to think that laundry, dishes, dinner, new purchases, etc. go without a certain amount of preparation and follow through. Share those tasks, involve children in the process, and let them see (and participate in) the complete cycle.
- Write thank you notes. When your child, or your family, receive a gift or are otherwise cared for, express written gratitude. These notes do not have to be perfect but the effort that goes in to expressing written gratitude is developmentally effective in teaching a lifelong skill of gratitude and appreciation.
- Teach your child that immediate gratification is a delusion. Example - teach that the vegetables or bread we eat comes from seeds planted, nurtured, watered, harvested, packaged, transported and sold by store keepers and involved many, many people who work hard to put food on our tables. Saying Grace helps us remember to be grateful to all who contribute to our well being.
- Spend leisure time doing things that do not involve spending money or result in "stuff." Teach the satisfaction that comes in accomplishing goals, laughter, fresh air, conversation, story telling, painting, singing, playing instruments, drawing and physical movement.
- Talk often and honestly about feelings. Share gratitude but also share other emotions. If your child is sad, validate their feelings of sadness. If your child is happy, give validation. Teach them language around feelings and reflect on outcomes. We have a tendency to talk about feelings or situations "in the moment" but revisiting past events, talking about outcomes, and finding the good that comes from each scenario are hugely powerful in teaching resiliency and, you guessed it, gratitude!
May this Thanksgiving offer you many opportunities to experience gratitude. May you be enveloped in peace, laughter, friendship and love.