‘Tis the season to be thankful! The seasonal decor aisles in every store are encouraging this important sentiment. “Give Thanks” is written in cursive script across reclaimed barnwood signs. “Be Thankful” is directed by resin harvest pumpkins ready for your mantle. I even saw a t-shirt in Target that proclaims, “Thankful Mama.” November invites us to advertise our thankfulness in the name of festive spirit, but it has made me think about how I foster gratitude in my everyday parenting.
Like most parents, we started teaching our children early to show off their manners with automatic and abundant “Thank you’s” when interacting with others. Before our boys could even speak, we had them using baby sign language to express their gratitude when handed a Mum Mum cracker. We remind them so often to repeat these two words in hopes that it will become second nature… an automatic, repeated phrase that rolls off the tongue without even thinking about it. While I certainly support instilling this habit in our children, I realize that I often spend more time and energy encouraging the robotic utterance of these two words than I do helping my children really feel the important emotion of gratitude.
Gratitude has become a sort of fad the past few years with the emergence of Oprah’s gratitude journal and social media “gratitude challenges,” but it has also become a hot research topic as an indicator for happiness, self-esteem, and even physical health. As parents, we feel like we are building this emotional intelligence in our children by having them run up and thank coaches after sports’ practices and scrawling thank you notes to all their buddies for birthday gifts, but I wonder if these actions fall into the category of expressing gratitude, but not truly feeling gratitude. In challenging myself to think about this fundamental difference, I started thinking about strategies we use to get our boys to really reflect and “feel” thankful for the countless privileges they enjoy.
Getting little kids to slow down long enough to think deeply can be a difficult task, but here are a few simple strategies that seem to work in our family.
I find that incorporating a reflection time in the routine of our day helps remind me to encourage gratitude. Either at dinner or bedtime, I will ask the boys to describe something great about their days. I usually get at this with different questions to keep things interesting and to get them to activate that gratitude center in their brains. “What is something that made you happy today?” “Describe one nice thing someone did for you today.” In having these sweet little conversations, we typically don’t ever say the words “thankful” or “gratitude,” but in stopping to think about and share the bright spots in our day, we are inherently feeling these emotions.
In our family, we have started the tradition of giving experiences rather than things. For Christmas and birthday gifts, we give our nieces and nephews coupons for fun outings rather than more material things. Sometimes these are one-on-one “dates” with their aunt or uncle, but we also let our kids plan special “field trips” to spend quality time with one of their cousins. We’ve done craft projects, rock-climbing, soccer games, and theatre shows. The possibilities are endless. Again while we don’t harp on thankfulness during these outings, we do talk about what a gift it is to spend time together in hopes that they begin to equate the idea of “gift” with relationships and feel gratitude for non-material things.
Travel is one of our family’s passions and values. Since the boys were babies, we have prioritized adventure and experiencing other places and cultures as much as possible. Each time we travel (both locally and globally), we encourage our boys to send postcards to family members and friends back home. When they were too young to write, we would have them dictate their experiences to us. “What do you want to tell Grandma about your trip? What is the most amazing thing you’ve seen so far?” Not only do their little friends love getting real mail, but we hope that this act of sharing their experiences with others helps promote a feeling of gratitude for the unique experience.
Encouraging gratitude requires some out-of-the-box thinking and extra effort. I’d love to hear other ideas. How do you promote gratitude in your children?