Teaching our children gratitude

Raising kids to be grateful.
Raising kids to be grateful. Photo: Getty

Mel Armstrong-Jones is a firm believer in teaching her children gratitude. Instead of taking things for granted, she wants them to grow up appreciating how lucky they are.

So, every night she encourages her two children - aged three and eight - to tell her "three great things about their day". She also encourages her older son to keep a 'gratitude diary'.

Mel doesn't just encourage her children to practice gratitude; she also practices it herself.

She's kept a gratitude diary her whole life and credits it with helping her through the tough times. This is because even when things aren't going as planned, she knows she still has a lot to be thankful for.

Psychologist Damien Adler agrees gratitude is an important life skill.

He says teaching children to be grateful helps them notice and appreciate the ways in which they are lucky.

"This is particularly important around Christmas when children are often overloaded with presents and can lose sight of how lucky they are," he says.

Gratitude also teaches children empathy. "They stop taking their own circumstances for granted and become more sensitive to the circumstances of others," says Adler.

Practicing gratitude won't just help your children develop important life skills; it can also make them happier.

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Such were the findings from a recent study from Baylor University that showed the key to happiness is less about what you own, and more about appreciating what you already have.

 "As we amass more and more possessions, we don't get any happier - we simply raise our reference point," said co-author James Roberts.

But let's face it. Kids don't always 'get' that concept, nor do they care about it.

They really believe that getting the next thing they want will make them happy.

And chances are it will - but in the short term only.

Then, when it's no longer new, they'll likely fix their gaze on the next thing they simply have to have. Thus the cycle continues.

While teaching children gratitude isn't a quick fix for this cycle, it can help them understand that joy comes more from how we view our lives, rather than what we own.

It's therefore important to teach our kids to be grateful for more than just material things. Help your child see how much she has to appreciate - from the roof over her head, to the lovely meal she just ate.

Here are some simple ways to welcome gratitude into your home:

For young children:

1. Keep a gratitude jar

Ask your children to colour (for the younger ones) or write one thing they are grateful for and put it in a jar, suggests Life Coach Peggy Sealfon. Then, at the end of the week, spend time together as a family reviewing those things. 

2. Help your child recognise the feeling of gratitude

When we teach our children feelings, we tend to stick to the more common ones first, like happiness and sadness. Sealfon recommends helping them recognise when they're feeling 'grateful', too.

So if Lucy shares her teddy bear and you see your son's face light up, say something like: "You look  grateful Lucy shared with you."

4. Teach your child to say thank you

If your child feels grateful, remind her to say thank you to show her appreciation.

5. Encourage your child to give to those less fortunate

 By choosing and giving a gift to someone less fortunate (via a 'giving tree'), you can remind your child that she has a lot to be grateful for. She can also learn that another child will be grateful to her for her kind act.

For older children:

1. Teach your child to write thank you notes

Focusing on the act of writing can further help your children explore their feelings of gratitude.

2. Offer positive reinforcements for 'grateful behaviour'

When your child does something you are grateful for, let her know.

Sealfon suggests saying things like, "I'm so fortunate to have such a thoughtful child who did all the dinner chores tonight without even being asked… Thank you."

3. Make volunteering part of your life

Sealfon recommends donating family time to help a charitable organisation. Use that opportunity to talk about being fortunate enough to help others.

4. Set a good example

Regardless of how old your children are, the best way to teach them about gratitude is to be a good example yourself, says Sealfon. "Make sure to take time to express appreciation in front of your family," she advises.

And there's no better time to start than Christmas. While you can display gratitude for the presents you receive, show your children how much more you have to be thankful for; from warm morning cuddles with them, to watching their joy and sharing your day with loved ones. 

Once you start looking for the things that make you grateful, chances are you'll find there are too many to count.

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