Parenting & the Power of Gratitude

What if you could improve your children’s GPA, decrease their risk of depression, and increase their chances of having a positive outlook on life?

Research shows that cultivating a spirit of gratitude in our kids can do just that.

As parents, you probably know that being grateful doesn’t always come naturally to kids (or parents, for that matter). I would guess that your house sounds like mine, with plenty of complaining and muttering. But modeling gratitude and encouraging our kids to see the positive things in life can make a huge difference, not only in the tone of your home today, but in your kids for the rest of their lives.

(You can find out more about the research on gratitude from this Wall Street Journal article.)

Recently I became really frustrated with all the complaining coming from my kids (I won’t mention names!). I know my kids have more than enough, but somehow they still feel cheated when their friends have iPhones or Star Wars shoes, or we don’t happen to have the “right” kind of breakfast cereal they wanted. Sometimes I’ve been known to launch into the “You know there are kids all over the world with nothing but RICE for breakfast, and you don’t even LIKE rice!” speech. You know the one. I’m not sure it’s that effective, even if they do stare at me while I’m giving it.

So this time, I decided to be a bit more proactive and use an idea I found online — to start a family gratitude journal. I’ve kept one for myself for several years, and found it really helps me maintain my perspective. We bought a cheap (silver, glittery) spiral notebook, and got started.

Here are our rules: all answers are acceptable. That means if someone wants to write that they are thankful for, say, their stuffed puppy every single day, that’s totally fine. Our “I’m thankful for” entries range from hot dogs and houses to grandparents and best friends. We don’t force anyone to participate, and I try not to stop them even if they’re on their 15th entry for the day. Usually we try to write in it at dinner if we’re all together, but sometimes it’s a more spontaneous activity.

We’ve only been at it for a short time, but so far my kids are really enthusiastic about it, and I think they’re even complaining less. A less formal way of doing this might be simply to share the best parts of your day with each other at bedtime, during dinner, or in the car.

Perhaps we all could do with a little less complaining in our lives.

To help with that, here are some other ways to cultivate gratitude, to model kindness, and to help kids realize they’re part of something bigger than themselves:

Chores

Ok, your kids are unlikely to express gratitude for being allowed to do chores. But getting them involved in the running of the house, even at at young age, has many benefits, some of them more obvious than others.

I haven’t told my kids yet, but my goal is to work toward not having a job at home by teaching them how to clean, fold laundry, take care of the dishes, etc. Even though they may grumble, you’re instilling a sense of ownership and helping them realize that it takes work to have clean clothes, clean dishes. and so on. During the process, you can model gratitude by thanking them and your partner for their contributions, however small.

Although it’s never too late to start this process, if you do have young children, involving them from the start is a great way to normalize it. Most toddlers and early preschoolers actually LIKE to be involved in household chores. True story: one of my boys actuallybegged me to teach him to clean a toilet at age 5. Will that enthusiasm last? Let’s just say I’m realistic. But in the meantime, how could I not teach him?

Here are some suggestions for age appropriate chores.

Volunteering

Help your child start to look out for ways to be helpful. This can be as simple as picking up the neighbor’s newspaper or trash can that rolled down the sidewalk, or can be more structured like donating to a food bank or visiting an animal shelter. For more ideas, see this excellent guide.

Thank You Notes

These are self-explanatory. Teach your kids how to receive gifts graciously, even when they don’t particularly like something. Younger children can draw, then dictate words for you to write. Encourage them to think about why they loved the gift instead of just simply writing “thank you.” Remind them that someone took the time to think about them and pick something out for them.

Say No

It’s ok for kids to wait for the things they really want, especially in this culture where buying the latest shoes or toys is just a click away. Teach kids how to anticipate and wait for things, which helps them understand the value of those things.

There are many other ways to cultivate gratitude in our kids. Have you tried something that works for your family? If so, we’d love to hear about it. You might find that if you start on the gratitude path with your kids, they have just as much to teach you as you have to teach them.

Dr. Amy Maddalena, a Kids Plus Doc since 2006, teaches the Expectant Parent Orientation class at our Pleasant Hills office.