A commenter on a recent post asked an important question:
Maybe you could write an article about how to inspire kids’ thank-you’s without ‘drilling it in’ to your children? What is the emotional basis for gratefulness, anyway?”
I don’t know if I can tell you what the emotional basis for gratitude is, but I do have some ideas for how to instill gratitude in your children. (If you’re wondering why gratitude matters, check out this post from the Greater Good Science Center.)
Start with yourself. If you don’t feel and express gratitude on a daily basis, then don’t worry about the kids yet. As I’ve said before, you can’t give your children what you don’t have. There are lots of great ways to cultivate gratitude in your own life, and you should pick one that feels natural for you. Some folks like to write in a journal, others prefer to talk about it with friends or family, and for lots of people it’s enough to simply have the thoughts and notice them.
Model it first. When you are ready to share your gratitude practices with your kids, start with the ways in which you are grateful first. You can do it spontaneously whenever it comes up, or you can do it in a more planned way, such as mentioning what you feel grateful for each night at dinner or during the bedtime routine.
It doesn’t have to be a huge deal. Sometimes it can feel like we should always be practicing Gratitude with a capital G. You don’t have to make it a big deal. It’s often enough to say thank you – to your children, your family, the universe, God, or whatever works for you. Appreciating small moments in small ways makes a difference too.
Don’t force it. No one likes to be told how to feel. The more you cram it down your children’s throats, the less like they will want to hear about it. If you bring up gratitude and the kids just aren’t into it, let it go. There will be many other opportunities.
Respect individual differences. Just like every other aspect of temperament, people vary in the extent to which they naturally feel grateful. Gratitude comes easily for some, not so easily for others. Have patience with your children if they struggle with it. If they grow up in a culture of gratitude, they’ll get there.
Let them be ungrateful, too. We all have periods in our lives when we feel just the opposite of grateful, when all we want to do is throw ourselves a nice little pity party and complain about everything. It doesn’t mean that we haven’t felt grateful in the past, and that we won’t again. It just means that we need a little time to wallow. Our children are no different, and we need to let them know that it’s ok to feel that way, and that we’re willing to hear them out. If we try to force our children (or ourselves!) out of that space before they’re ready, they’ll just dig their heels in.
Let go of the outcome. If you find yourself practicing gratitude for the sole purpose of teaching it to your children, they’ll see right through you and it will never take. Children know when you’re being real, and those are the moments they learn from. If you practice gratitude because it matters to you, and because it’s how you feel, that’s how they will learn.
I’d love to hear what ideas you have. How do you teach gratitude to your children? What would you add to the list?