Recently a parent raised the question of how she could encourage her children to be more grateful; “My kids get so many things and never seem to be that grateful for them”.
This question is loaded with an expectation. The expectation is that our kids should be grateful for what they are already getting. Is it realistic for kids to be grateful? I think it’s more realistic to expect children to be egocentric. That’s not bad. We’d like our children to get less egocentric as they grow up and to be well-mannered.
There are good reasons why a child may not show gratitude. As adults we know it’s polite to be grateful. Adults might take it for granted that every child understands how we relate to others and what they need to do to be successful in a particular social situation. Children are often unaware that a consequence of not showing gratitude is that people can judge them and may not treat them well. Instead of judging our children for their failings we owe it to them to encourage them be their best selves. We need to be the flexible and understanding adult and work out how they think and what we need to do to help them see things from another person’s perspective.
Sometimes we compare our children to other children and sometimes we see other children show gratitude when ours do not. Kids might behave in a grateful way because they have been told it’s rude when they do not, which has nothing to do with authentic gratitude. Do we want our kids to look like they are grateful when they are only going through the motions or are we more interested in what will help pass on our value of feeling real gratitude?
Why it is important to be curious about gratitude
Apart from wanting our kids to have good manners the research on gratitude tells us that there are a range of benefits when we practice being grateful. According to the leading experts being grateful has health, social and psychological benefits. Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.
One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to doctors than those who focused on sources of aggravation.
Model gratitude often
Kids spend about 900 hours a year at school and about 9800 hours at home. We are their first teachers and what we do matters. What are we grateful for? How are we modelling gratitude?
So often parents struggle with finding things to be grateful for. It’s no surprise that we feel frustrated when we have a stream of grumbling comments. Mealtimes are a good example.”What’s for dinner?” is a question many parents dread. It can be hard to take this when we have been busy and we’ve worked hard to put a meal together. Instead of making too much of a fuss when our child pulls a face and says “I hate broccoli” we can use our energy in a positive way. Make a point to notice and mention how much we value the positive comments that they have made on another occasion:
“When you said that you like the spaghetti that I cooked I felt appreciated.”
Doing this helps to remind us that our children do actually value things and that they are not always complaining. It also makes it more likely that our child will realise this comment is something we value and would like to see more of.
Pay attention to small actions
We can consciously notice and mention the things we are grateful for by carefully observing the things our children do already. Don’t wait for a momentous occasion, like winning an award, which happens once a year for some lucky child, and may not happen at all for our child. Look for the mundane things instead. When our child remembers to hang up the towel we have an opportunity to be grateful for that small act. The research tells us we need to try to avoid giving too much attention to frustrating thoughts. I am guessing it is a lot easier to think of the things that bug us, like when our child has not remembered to put their dirty laundry in the basket. Try to pay less attention to those annoying things.
Being grateful gets easier with practice and makes us healthier
Even when we know what the benefits are it’s hard to change. We need to reduce reacting to the things that annoy us, especially the behaviours that press our buttons. Developing an awareness of what we can be grateful for is the first step. We need to avoid beating ourselves up when we can’t stay on track all the time. Growth mindset research tells us that our brains are like a muscle – we get more of what we practice. Small changes over time wire in the new habit of being grateful. It turns out that what we pay attention to has a significant effect on the way we feel and our levels of optimism about our whole life. The research showed that it can even decrease the need to visit the doctor!
Small ways to practice include being grateful for thoughtfulness;
“I see that the card you chose for me has roses on it. I loved how you remembered I like roses. It means a lot to me that you chose that special card.“
When our children remember to share the duties we can appreciate that too:
“I saw you put down the water for the dog. You’ve realised how he needs to have a cool drink on a hot day and I really appreciate you thinking about him.”
Write it down to stay on track
Writing notes carefully describing what we appreciate about our children can have a positive impact on the relationship we have with them. It helps by reminding us to keep looking for all the small examples of gratitude and it is a record of these things we are noticing.
A parent attending a parenting course expressed her frustration that she felt she wasn’t getting through to her 13 year old son. Communication was a real struggle. She started to write notes specifically mentioning things that she appreciated him doing. Even though it appeared this wasn’t working it clearly made an impact – the notes were found neatly stacked in his drawer. This story is such a good reminder to keep looking for things we’re grateful for, especially when it doesn’t look like our children appreciate it.
Being grateful for the steps in the right direction is important for our younger kids too. Drawing pictures of the “kind teddy” in a book helped a pre-school boy understand he was appreciated. He had been given the kind teddy as a reward for being kind to another child at pre-school. Six weeks after the picture of the teddy was drawn in the book this young boy wanted to see the picture of the “kind teddy”. It meant a lot to him that he was appreciated and helped to improve his self-image and his relationship with the people around him.
As parents we’re interested in gratitude because it’s a social emotion, we want to help our children to develop empathy and healthy relationships. Robert Emmons sees gratitude as relationship-strengthening because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people. When we start to look at all the things we are grateful for we feel more encouraged and more hopeful about our child’s future. Teaching gratitude isn’t just about behaving well and being polite it improves the quality of our relationships on which all our interactions depend.