The Greatness of Gratitude

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
==Meister Eckhart

It is said that gratitude is the highest level of human emotion. To feel and express gratitude can shift us from a perspective of lack to one of abundance and fulfillment. Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading gratitude researchers has determined that a gratitude practice leads to an array of benefits including higher immune functioning, better sleep, lower blood pressure and less pain, more positive emotions, more compassion, more helpfulness, more joy and pleasure, just to name a few. In children, gratitude improves the quality of their social relationships, their ability to self-regulate and their overall levels of health and well-being.

Gratitude is a skill that we can teach and a tremendous gift that we can offer to our children. Moving toward greater expressions of gratitude in our lives doesn’t mean that we bypass the emotions that arise in response to our challenges, stress or traumas. We allow these emotions to move through and, in the case of our children, we offer our presence to hold space for what they are feeling. And we can teach and model for them to widen the lens and see that even difficult emotions can serve us.

Over time, children can learn to be grateful even for the adversities in their lives. In fact, true healing takes place when we are able to move from a place of feeling overwhelm and difficulty to feeling grateful for the way the situation has led to our growth. John DeMartini’s unique approach to personal growth involves (among many other facets) creating extensive lists of the benefits we gain from our adversities and challenges. For example, if your parents divorced when you were five and this was quite troubling for you, you can make a list of 100 ways this actually benefited you. Perhaps it helped you be more compassionate to others’ loss, or you had to learn to be very conscious and self-regulated in response to change and transition. Again, this is not a bypass. When there is grief, we must grieve and move through the five stages. Eventually, however, these practices can lead us toward a paradigm shift that takes us out of victimhood and into tremendous growth and healing. As Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness says, “When we think of failure as something to be thankful for because it is a necessary step in learning, we get better at overcoming challenges.”

So how do we teach gratitude to children in this culture of affluence and constant sensory stimulation? You’ll need to make a conscious effort to incorporate gratitude into your day-to-day practices. Here are a few ideas:

  • Create a gratitude board-¬†Find a fun chalkboard or white board (or better yet paint part of a wall with chalkboard paint). You and your family members can write on it the things you are grateful for. And everything is ok. They may be grateful for their video games and you wish they were grateful for the food on their plate. Let it go. We are teaching gratitude, not imposing our agenda for what they should be grateful for.
  • Dinnertime Gratitude– Go around the table at dinner and each take turns naming something you are grateful for or something you appreciate about someone else in the family.
  • Snuggly Bedtime Thanks– Ask your kids as you tuck them in at night, what’s one thing they’re really thankful for.
  • Thank you notes– Write thank you notes to friends, family members, teachers, neighbors. In her book¬†Raising Happiness Christine Carter talks about a research-based method called the “gratitude visit”. Your kids write a thank you note and then pay an in-person visit to the recipient and read their thank you note aloud to him/her. Children feel so great about expressing their appreciation and having it be received.

Get creative and have fun. Over time you and your children will develop this skill more fully and you will notice the difference that gratitude and appreciation will make in your kids’ lives.

 

Thanksgiving Gratitude

 

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice. – Meister Eckhart

On this weekend before Thanksgiving, I’m giving a lot of thought to the concept of gratitude and thinking of all the things that I am truly grateful for. And I’m thinking of the ways we can convey this concept to young children, who are by nature egocentric beings. It is our role to help kids cultivate and experience feelings of thanks and gratitude, which are so important in allowing them to feel empathy and concern for the well-being of others. So how do we do this?

First and foremost: By modelling and expressing our own open-hearted thanks, not just on one day of the year, but every day. Create a daily ritual where we name something that we are thankful for. Dinner is an amazing opportunity to do this and it can give way to some rich table time conversations. Bedtime is another opportunity, leaving children to drift off to sleep with thoughts of blessings and grace. It’s ok if they name material things that they are grateful for. You can model your sense of thanks for things like generosity, kindness, patience, etc. Kids will pick up on this and eventually express it themselves.

Let children know all the ways you feel grateful throughout the day. “I am so lucky to have such helpful kids.” “I’m really grateful to our neighbor for feeding the kitty while we were gone this weekend.”

Thank your kids for the ways they help out…and be specific. “Thank you for putting your shoes in your room the first time mommy asked you to. It was really helpful and felt good to have to ask only once.” And remind them to thank each other. “Did you say thank you to Henry for sharing his blocks with you? That was really kind of him.”

Demonstrate the spirit of helping others. You can keep it simple…Take the trash out or shovel snow for an elderly neighbor. Or take it to the next level…Have them pick out old toys, clothes or books to donate to a shelter or organization. Participate in a food drive. Volunteer as a family baking cookies or a meal for children who are hospitalized. And use these deeds as opportunities to talk about all that we are fortunate to have–from food and a warm home to our precious bodies.

The thing to remember is that young children are egocentric beings–they see and experience the world through their own eyes. And gratitude is not a trait that comes naturally to them–it is learned through positive experiences and reinforcement. So give gentle reminders and lots of reinforcement, but be patient. Children don’t genuinely integrate ways of being when they are forced. Cultivating an authentic sense of gratitude takes time but will have tremendous rewards for both you and your children.

Happy Thanksgiving and many blessings.