November 24, 2014

Four ways to cultivate gratitude in children

Someone once said it's not what kind of world we're leaving for our children, but what kind of children we're leaving for our world.

Kindness and a sense of gratitude are core values that we need to help encourage in children. And, while encouraging a positive mindset is something to consider all year long, the holidays present a unique opportunity to focus on a message of gratitude.

Studies have shown that children who cultivate gratitude in their lives have better social relationships and do better in school. Being grateful actually contributes to our overall sense of well-being and helps increase our happiness.

But, as any parent of a young child knows — especially during the holidays — encouraging gratitude in the midst of pressure for expensive or numerous gifts can be challenging.

So, how do parents help encourage gratitude in children?

Focus on experiences

Parents feel pressure to buy the designer items or the latest toys and can go over budget buying holiday gifts. Kids can get swept up in it too. I've heard parents complain that shortly after the gift-opening the toys are often ignored, or there's already talk of wanting more.

One way to help overcome the material aspect of the season is to focus on experiences. I've heard of families that don't give toys or other items. Instead, they give "experience" — a promise of a family trip during the summer, membership at a museum, or a class at a local arts studio. The children not only get the unique experience, but also memories more meaningful than a toy.

One of my favorite holiday memories happened when I was 14 years old. My family was leaving church after service. It was lightly snowing, something that was rare for where we were living at the time, and we could hear the carolers singing on the street. We stopped and one by one began to join in with the singing. As all the voices came together, I was filled with a sense of wonder and connection with the true meaning of the season. More than any present I ever received, that is a holiday memory that will forever stay with me.

Make gratitude a part of your daily conversation

Consider making gratitude a part of your daily conversation.

During dinner or as part of a bedtime ritual, ask children to share three things they're grateful for. A friend of mine asks her children what they did in their day to make someone happy. My mom used to sing a little song that included the things I was grateful for that day, and I would help by naming the different items so she would include them in the lyrics.

Modeling an attitude of appreciation is also key. One way to do that is by being grateful for the time you get to spend together. Bake cookies together, go for a hike, spend time as a family and when you do, express your positive feelings about the experience.

You can also help kids recognize what it means to be grateful by calling attention to the good things that happen and attribute a positive emotion to it. For example, "Your friend drew you a picture. That must have taken her some time, and I see that makes you happy" And then ask, "I wonder what your friend was thinking?" By talking about it with your child, it helps take the experience beyond the superficial and can help him or her empathize with her friend.

As you encourage kids to be grateful for what they have or receive, don't forget to encourage them to be grateful for their own abilities. Doing so will help build their sense of self and self-esteem. Point out when you see they've worked hard at something, or that you've noticed they've helped someone out. It's not about saying they've done something good. It's about the effort they've made or help that they've given.

Consider looking for service opportunities in the community. There are volunteer opportunities for families, whether through church or local organizations. Decide whether you'd prefer a one-time or ongoing experience and then call organizations or visit their websites to learn more. Volunteering helps provide perspective for children on their good fortunes and the gifts and blessings they already have, and allows children to feel good about helping to make a difference for others.

Look for the silver linings

As you're working to cultivate a sense of gratitude, don't forget there is also an opportunity to find the silver lining when things don't go our way.

Maybe a child had to share a cookie with a sibling. Or a child didn't receive a desired gift from a relative. Or they experience something difficult in school. It's OK to be disappointed but these challenges can help the child grow. But, it can be hard to know how to deal with disappointment.

Help your child try looking for any positive that might have come from the experience. Sharing the cookie meant making someone else really happy. Focus on the idea that Grandma or Aunt Sue was being thoughtful with their gift. The child might have learned some important life lessons from the difficulty at school. Listen to your child's disappointment and try not to get upset or critical. Kids will be kids. But take advantage of the opportunity to help kids grow by encouraging them to also consider a broader perspective.

Say thank you

And don't forget thank you notes. Encourage kids to think about why they like the gift and include that in the message. Don't stop with just the gifts. Consider leaving a little note expressing thanks for something nice someone in the family did. Make gratitude a part of the everyday experience for the family.

As we talk about gratitude and kindness, what we're really talking about is putting more love out in the world. And that can be one of the most meaningful gifts of all.