One of the first things we teach our kids as soon as they learn to speak is to say, “Thank you.” Think of the countless times you have said, “what do you say?…” to prompt your child to utter these words. But do our kids really have any idea what it means to be thankful?
Practicing gratitude has benefits that go beyond having a polite kid.
Studies show that people who practice gratitude feel 25% happier, are more likely to be kind and helpful to others, are more enthusiastic, interested and determined, and even sleep better.
The research on gratitude challenges the idea of a “set point” for happiness, a belief that each of us has a genetically-determined level of happiness. Research on gratitude suggests that people can move their set point upward to some degree, enough to have a measurable effect on both their outlook and their health.
According to Robert Emmons, author of Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, people who practice grateful thinking “reap emotional, physical and interpersonal benefits.” Studies have shown that people who regularly keep a gratitude journal report fewer illness symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole, and are more optimistic about the future.
So how can families practice gratitude in meaningful ways so that our kids learn what it means to be thankful? Here are a few ideas.
- Express your appreciation for each other.
In my house we started this as a birthday tradition. When it is someone’s birthday we go around the table and express what we all appreciate about that person. The first time we did this it was uncomfortable for me, it felt ‘cheesy’ for lack of a better term. But when I heard the amazing things my kids had to say it quickly became my favorite family ritual, and we remind each other of what has been said often.
- Acknowledge the small stuff.
When we practice mindfulness it helps us to be present in our relationships and pay attention to our environment. Often it is easy to go through the day distracted, out of sync with our environment and the people around us. When you are with your kids, be intentional about noticing the beautiful flowers, bright blue sky, the helpful person at the coffee counter, and the nice man who held the door for you. Your appreciation for the the little things around you will rub off on your kids.
- Make a gratitude jar.
This can be a fun project for kids. Find a container and let the kids decorate it. Cut out some pieces of scratch paper and put them in a convenient place so that family members can write down things they feel grateful for and place the paper in the jar. If kids can’t yet write then having them draw a picture of something works great also! Then, open the jar once a week or once a month and read what everyone has written.
- Make it part of your bedtime routine.
Take a few minutes at the end of each day to show appreciation for the little things in your life for which you are thankful. It is important for parents to model gratitude for meaningful things like relationships, kindness, and the natural beauty in your environment (rather than your 60 inch plasma TV or your new ipad). This is a wonderful way to end each day!
As Fred De Witt Van Amburgh once said, “Gratitude is a currency that we can mint for ourselves, and spend without fear of bankruptcy.” And we’d add that the research behind the practice, plus our own in the trenches application, suggests that having a gratitude practice pays dividends in all areas of our lives!