Raising Grateful Children
Written by Alexandra English
Our mindset is our key to success or to self destruction. Just ask a rescued P.O.W., a recovered trauma victim, a CEO, an Olympian or a 105 year old. Having a positive mindset has been demonstrated time and again as the key to accomplishing goals and having a healthy, balanced life. So how do we ensure a positive mindset for our children (for ourselves)? An attitude of gratitude is an essential component to a positive mindset. Below are five effective ways to give your children a grateful outlook on life. ‘Tis the season to try them out!
1. Gratitude as an Essential Social Skill. Children learn through mimicry, so taking the time to say please and thank you with a positive intonation in front of your kids is essential to getting them to do it as well. Especially in the first four years when their social imprinting is most crucial. Don’t forget to say it to service staff, strangers, to your spouse and to your children every time it is appropriate. We can go a step further by reflecting later with your children for emphasis, “Wasn’t that man so kind to pick up our spilled bag for us?” Making an extra display of gratitude when your children pick you a flower, make you a picture or pour your cereal (even when a mess ensues) will ensure they know to say it to you and others on Christmas morning or on their birthday. Reminding them to say “please” and “thank you” at every occasion helps ingrain this essential social skill. As simple as this sounds, it’s good to be mindful of it as a parent because we often ourselves forget to say these crucial words in our daily stress.
2. Practicing Daily Reflection/Gratitude Statements. Practicing family gratitude in a structured way ensures that everyone in the family is getting into the habit. During your bedtime routine with your child, you can say what and who you are grateful for (this is usually more effective when it is pertaining to the particular day’s events), or if your family is faith-based you can offer gratitude through daily prayer. Having a special gratitude routine whereby the parent offers thanks for their children and their other family members openly is both confidence building and provides security for children to routinely hear. This is especially so after having had a bad day or any family arguing has occurred. Bedtime isn’t the only time to be grateful, however. This can be done over mealtimes, in the car, or anywhere that the family has a routine, private time together to announce what they are grateful for. Developing the daily habit of gratitude is the important part, no matter how the ritual is carried out.
3. Gratitude, not Instant Gratification. Saying “no,” (especially when we can afford to buy our children what they ask for on a whim) is a gift to them, wrapped up for their future self. It is better to their development to let them yearn for a toy long enough that when they finally receive it by gift or by earning it, we know they really wanted it in their heart and not because it was stocked near a cash register. They will be more grateful as well. A helpful technique to get through the cash register without a tantrum once you have said no to a particular item is to have your children begin naming things they already have that they are grateful for. This vocal recitation of gratitude ideally will buy you enough time to get through your interaction with the cashier without having to raise your voice, (or worse, publicly shame them or call them spoiled). It will help distract them from the item you have refused to buy and might elicit a smile from the cashier as well. Using verbal gratitude lists instead of shaming your children for the wealthy situation they were born into is much better for confidence, trusting family relationships and for being grateful.
Being firm and saying “I love you but no,” works when as parents, you are on the same team. But what do we do with all those well intentioned family members and friends who seem to have a gift for your children every time they see each other? A conversation is required, and it will go differently for everyone. But remember, spoiling your children completely destroys their future abilities to earn on their own and replaces their gratitude with entitlement. You, in the end, are the one who is responsible, so I recommend being firm with family members (no matter how awkward that conversation may be for you). One way to minimize unwanted accumulation of toys that could be harmful to your child’s sense of gratitude is to ask friends and family to bring a book instead of a toy at birthday parties, or parties in the child’s honor. That way you can hand select a few toy items for them to open alongside their books in a more controlled manor. You can take this a step further and make sure the toys you pick are educational or meant for child development as this will expand their early learning and better prepare them for formal education. It also leaves the more popular, advertised toys as bargaining chips or incentive based rewards for things like potty-training all the way to grade earning. This technique is most effective in the first four years of life, but hopefully after that, your family members will have been trained by you to be more mindful in their purchasing as well. As a side benefit, your house will not look like a plastic-toy explosion or a daycare center run by children. Your children will learn earlier on to love books (especially paired with a daily snuggle and book reading with loved ones). With fewer toys, they will be more likely to take better care of the toys they have and will appreciate a less crowded playspace. Most importantly, they will not be robbed of the opportunity to earn the items they want through good behavior and hard work. If they are given everything up front, you will have lost the motivational incentives that fuel their ongoing behavioral modifications.
Finally, I recommend being firm about fixing and not replacing toys if they break in a way that violated the parental guidelines. Most often toys break when children use them inappropriately and while it is personally difficult for me to be firm about this one, I maintain that the lesson is more valuable than the toy. Your children will learn to take good care of their items and abide by the parental guidelines which is an excellent sign of gratitude.
4. Gratitude Through Writing. Once your children begin to write, there is a wonderful window open for them to do more than just practice the skill of writing. They are given the opportunity to learn manners, to develop relationships, and by way of practice, to develop a grateful mindset. Insisting your children write thank you notes is a great way to have them make their own personal connections with those they should thank (like grandparents, teachers, neighbours etc.) For younger children, a special picture made with the words “thank you” written with help or using stickers is an excellent semi-independent activity.
Older children (and their parents) can benefit from a gratitude journal. Journal writing is a proven effective way to create successful, mentally and emotionally healthy children. A gratitude journal can take this one step further. Daily journaling with a grateful mindset can be a major tool in the prevention or treatment of teenage anxiety and depression. Getting your child into the habit of this daily practice before their hormones begin to change on them can make a big difference in the way they experience the often turbulent transition of puberty through to adulthood. It is important to keep your child accountable by enforcing this practice until it is a well formed habit. Turning the journal upside down and then backwards and counting the words/pages for completion is a great way to ensure your child is writing in the journal while also maintaining their privacy. Having your children recite gratitude essays is along the same lines, and is a wonderful activity to do as a whole family during the holidays.
5. Gratitude Through Empathy. When children are acting ungrateful for their position in life, it can be easy (and feel good) to shame them. “Don’t you have any idea how lucky you are?! There are people all over the world that don’t get to have what you have!” Is something I hear a lot from frustrated parents and teachers who desperately want their children to feel grateful in their hearts. Over-shaming children ensures your words will fall on deaf ears and will create distances in the relationships between the adults and the children. The truth is that they really do not know how lucky they are. Telling them over and over does nothing, it makes them tune us out. We really must show them. But how do we show our children the horrors of the world without emotionally scarring them? We do not want to put them in dangerous situations during their vulnerable years. Participating as a family in a school fundraiser, a food drive, or volunteering at a soup kitchen are all classic ways to become involved as a family. While these are a good start towards giving back, there is still often a disconnect between the helpers and the receivers. It can often be too abstract for them to have an emotional response towards strangers.The most effective way for children to become grateful in their hearts (through empathy) is for them to be personally responsible for the care of another, less fortunate person. Older children can be responsible for reading books or spending time with loved ones in nursing homes or in long term hospital care. There are also many programs which take older children abroad for volunteer work. (This requires research, however, to avoid loathsome “poverty tourism,” other domestic/ international dangers). Younger children can start with exposure to empathy through books, programs and weekend youth groups which place emphasis on personal responsibility, community and generosity. There are many faith based options available which can be paroused and edited by parents to accommodate personal family belief systems.
Gratitude is a practice that becomes easier and easier each time we utilize it. Daily practice makes perfect. I am very grateful for this opportunity to share and wish the reader a happy and healthy Thanksgiving season!
Alexandra English is a certified educator, child wellness blog contributor, mother and wife. She has over 15 years of experience in child development. She currently lives in Cobb County, Georgia as a homemaker and homeschool educator to her five year old son. For questions or comments, you can email Alexandra at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her latest interview, talking motherhood with Paradigm Prep, here.