By Mary Ellen Christy
In November, American families focus on thoughts of gratitude as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. Gratitude is as old as time and an integral part of all the major religions. Jews begin their daily prayers by giving thanks to Yahweh for the dawn of another day. Christians say “Thanks be to God” after completing the reading of Scripture. When Muslims pray five times a day, they are returning thanks to Allah for what has been provided, not asking him to provide what they themselves desire. In both the Buddhist and Hindu religions, the laws of Karma include humility. Whether you are religious or not, you are lifting your spirit by being generous and teaching those around you, especially your children, about its importance.
In King Lear, William Shakespeare warns: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a thankless child.” Ralph Waldo Emerson advised: “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” Emerson’s advice has a distinctly positive quality. It implies that gratitude can create what psychologists label “a positive mental attitude.” In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Thank You. No, Thank you,” Melinda Beck wrote: “Adults who feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections, and more happiness than those who do not, according to studies conducted over the past decade. They’re also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy, or alcoholics.”
Some behaviors are learned, and others are instinctive. Among the learned behaviors, gratitude is one that can be acquired at an early age and opens us to an awareness of the wider world. Gratitude is more than the quality of being thankful. True gratitude incorporates the desire to show appreciation and to return received kindness. Most of our children live in abundance, regardless of the family’s financial circumstances. In a world so dominated by materialism, even the poorest among us overextend themselves in a desire to give their children the material goods which they think will bring happiness. Unfortunately, this does not contribute to creating a sense of either happiness or gratitude in our children because they have neither an understanding of nor an appreciation for what it took to provide all these things. Their focus is on things and not on people. Gratitude exists only when the focus remains on people.
Teaching your kids gratitude is one of the best gifts you can give them.
All children learn what they live and model not only their behavior but also their language, on that of the adults around them. People who are calm, polite, and grateful have children who exhibit the same behaviors. An adult who screams “don’t” at a child who is about to touch a breakable object versus one who gently removes the object while saying “Oh no, thank you,” misses the opportunity to create a positive interaction. Sesame Street may think the magic words are: “a la peanut butter sandwiches,” but actually they are “please and thank you.” It is amazing what a sincere “please” or a heartfelt “thank you” can do to improve any interaction, regardless of age. Next time you are in a restaurant, try saying “thank you” to the server as your plate is placed in front of you or your water glass is filled. When you order your drink at the coffee shop, try adding “please” to your request for a grande cappuccino. Then, step back and while you wait, listen to see if your behavior has caused anyone to follow suit. Gratitude can be observed on an individual level, but it may also have subsequent effects that create a wider circle of gratitude. The recipient of gratitude may not reciprocate directly, but may, in turn, be influenced to lend a favor to a third party. Additionally, people who express their gratitude tend to be more willing to forgive others and be less narcissistic.
So, how do we create an environment that will foster in your children a sense of gratitude and the desire to share their gratitude? Parents play an essential role in modeling generosity. Make it a practice, whether at the dinner table, riding in the car, or at bedtime, to review the day with your children. Share with them some of the things that happened to you for which you are grateful and then ask them to think about something they are grateful for. Set a good example by thanking people in writing not just for gifts but for kindnesses they have done for you. Share this practice with your children.
Teaching children gratitude and sharing should also include a division of responsibilities. This brings us to the topic of an allowance. Some people prefer the term bonus or commission because an allowance should not be paid to children simply for living and breathing. They enjoy the benefit of living in your home, so it is logical and reasonable that they should assume responsibilities which might include keeping their room neat, caring for pets, setting and clearing the table, taking the trash out, and possibly assisting with meal preparation or doing the family laundry. If they exceed your expectations, you might consider a bonus which will link in their minds that effort can be rewarding and that you are willing to express your gratitude.
The best book I have found for teaching children about gratitude is The Opposite of Spoiled – Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money by Ron Lieber. This well written and comprehensive book focuses primarily on teaching children money management. We will focus extensively on that topic in my January column. However, some of his chapters also focus on gratitude: “Are We Raising Materialistic Kids,” “How to Talk About Giving, Why Kids Should Work,” “The Luckiest,” and “How Much Is Enough.”
The Opposite of Spoiled – Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money by Ron Lieber.
This book is full of practical suggestions for giving your children real-life experiences that will increase their understanding of empathy, gratitude, and purpose. Chapter 8, “The Luckiest,” illustrates a thoughtful mother’s masterful plan to teach her children about gratitude: “Lucy Gilchrist, a mother of two in Cleveland found a different way to include her daughters in volunteer work that forged a deeper connection. Through her church, she became a volunteer driver for fellow parishioners. While that may not sound like much of a way to help, not having a car makes life extraordinarily complicated in plenty of parts of the country. Many of the neighborhoods in Cleveland have no decent grocery store, and if you have a new baby, it is hard to take the bus back and forth to a good one. Gilchrist helped a family who was trying to move out of government-subsidized housing but didn’t have any way to travel around the city to see the available rentals. She and her two children spent many hours driving the other family around in their minivan over two or three days. The two families bonded over their joint attempt to sleuth out various flaws in the rental houses and all the defects that the landlords were trying to hide…. Only one of the houses was habitable and by the end, Gilchrist’s kids were helping point out when the landlord was flat-out lying.” This was true service learning and created a lasting friendship based on shared experience and reciprocal gratitude. This experience was a more appropriate, and meaningful experience than an expensive service project abroad.
Kids can begin saving money and giving back at an early age.
Teaching your children that money is not meant to be spent solely on material things will allow them to carry the learned behavior of gratitude into adulthood.
For gratitude to become a part of the fabric of our lives, we must be intentional about it. As a family, you may want to consider creating a collaborative gratitude journal. For this, you can find a regularly scheduled time at which every family member will record what they are grateful for. If you have the practice in your family of having a weekly family meeting, this would be the ideal time to make additions to the journal. There is something magical about recording our thoughts which not only lets us share them but also validates them. Another practice that you can incorporate in your family life – even if you do not subscribe to any organized religion – is pausing before you begin your meal by reciting together or asking one member of the family to recite this poem of gratitude:
There are many things I am thankful for
You can find them near and far
There are many things I am thankful for
Here are some of what they are…
Then, take turns going around the table each sharing something for which you are grateful. Done consistently over time, this will have a positive impact not just on the atmosphere around your dinner table, but also within each one of your lives.