Recent studies done at both the Boston University Child Development lab and the Social Cognitive Development Lab at Yale show that when children benefit from gratitude they become more benevolent, thus creating a cascading effect of generosity. Since it is so important to give back in our society, it seems to follow that we would want to raise grateful children.
The good news is that by simply displaying gratitude towards our children we can create a better world for them. Even better is to embrace being grateful as a family value. To quote the lovely Janice Kaplan, author of “The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life,” whether it’s learned or inherited, a sense of gratitude clearly runs in families. Given all the hard evidence, I decided to see if I could incorporate more gratitude into my own family. Here are my top three tips from my experiment.
Create an ever-changing family mantra of gratefulness
Simply place a chalkboard or cork board in an area where all the family is able to see it every day and draw or hang a verse or quote that inspires gratitude. The trick is to change it often, weekly or bi-weekly, so it will retain its novelty. Since I am no artist, my family is always excited to see what I will draw on our chalkboard and it is just as likely they get a good laugh from the drawing as they internalize the quote. Pinterest.com is a great source of free printable quotes to hang on a cork board if you’d rather not draw. Just having that reminder seems to encourage my family so much.
Express gratitude together every day
Find a way for your family to express gratitude in a tangible and consistent way. Many experts suggest families share what they are grateful for at the dinner table. This seems simple but when we tried it at our house, we disintegrated into a bunch of red-faced people hemming and hawing and then forcing ourselves to share something. Since it clearly wasn’t making us more grateful, I went looking for a better way for us to express gratitude as a family.
I found many helpful suggestions such as creating a family gratitude journal, or a gratitude basket or jar that gets filled with slips of paper on which everyone writes what they are grateful for and then sharing a dose of gratitude as part of a bedtime ritual. While those are all great ideas, none seemed to blend cohesively into our family life. We needed to find a way to share that fit our communication style.
Then, as I was reminding my 10-year-old of a dentist appointment via Facebook, an idea came to me. Now we each post a grateful comment or photo to Facebook every day. The conversations that each post inspires are usually done in the comments section, and for whatever reason, that prevents anyone from feeling like they are being put on the spot. It has made us each look for things to be grateful for and the effects are moving far beyond our family.
Give your kids a view beyond themselves
Help kids to recognize their blessings are a gift rather than an entitlement by inspiring empathy in them. I thought I was really good at filling my darlings with empathy because I often shared real tales of human despair with them. Then reality hit me like a brick recently when my son shared this story. Despite all the lectures (aka stories) he heard during his childhood, the realities of homeless families only became concrete once he got to know some desperately poor people. He claimed that before he interacted with the homeless folks at the free clinic where he is now a volunteer, he had always believed they had done something that caused them to deserve their fate. Now he understands how fortunate he is.
That sense of empathy was exactly what I was trying to instill in him with my stories. This experience taught me that it is vital to not only get your kids out into the world but to hang back and let them experience it their way. So go ahead and volunteer as a family at the soup kitchen or homeless shelter. It works because you are so busy helping others, you really don’t have time to butt in on your child’s experience.