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