In the past week, my eight year old son E has been busily writing letters and researching their content. “What excellent academic practice!” I might typically think. But in this case, I did not. Instead the “Dear Santa” letter followed by “Dear Grandma, Mom, Dad and Guy-down-the street, I want the following presents…” turned my happy boy into a grumpy one. I noticed his mind was consumed with what he wanted and didn’t have. He was coming down with a pretty intense case of the “Galloping Greedy Gimmies” as the Berenstain Bears so aptly refer to it. And I began to worry that it might turn into a seasonal trend over the coming weeks.
I was hoping a family ritual would protect him against the “gimmies.” Each November, we take time out in the evenings as a family before bedtime to talk about what we are thankful for. We write down our specific thoughts for the day and put the notes into a felt tree that hangs on our wall as we countdown to Thanksgiving. That nightly tradition gives us the chance to talk about the spirit of giving and gratefulness for the season. We all have hopes for toys or gifts that may come. But if we really want to join in the spirit of the season regardless of what holidays we celebrate in the coming months, the themes are universal. They are to feel the love we share between family and friends and to celebrate the goodness we already enjoy in our lives.
Recently, after talking about the meaning of giving thanks and coming up with ideas for one evening’s addition to our tree countdown, E wrote how grateful he was for his favorite show on television because he wouldn’t know so much about animals if it weren’t for that show. And so we took that grateful thought and expanded it into a new letter writing project. And I could see the “Gimmies” wash away from his face when he crafted a letter to his television heroes thanking them for what they teach him.
Gratitude is a way of both thinking and feeling. It can be cultivated if we simply spend time talking about what we appreciate in our lives and why we appreciate it. And the pay off can be big. Our kids are more likely to take responsibility for their toys and books if they have a sense of gratitude for them. And more importantly, leading researcher Mark Emmons found, gratitude has one of the strongest links to mental health and well-being than any other orientation or personality trait. So for parents there is good reason to be intentional about promoting it. But it can be challenging because people tend to see problems. And at times this focus serves us well. We notice all the things going wrong and are highly motivated to “fix” them. However this orientation toward problems can overwhelm our perceptions. Gratitude offers the chance for balance. While our car is breaking down, for example, the brilliant fall leaves light up the street. A kind person pulls over and extends herself far beyond our expectations to help us move the car to a repair shop. We may feel engulfed by the problem at hand - our broken-down car and the large bill that surely will go with it. But the exceptionally kind person was a part of the experience and so too was the beauty that surrounded it.
If we are fortunate enough to have a comfortable life without serious worries about where our next meal is coming from, then how do our kids not take their abundant lives and the good people and things in them for granted? How can we cultivate a sense of gratitude in our family?
If you have flown in the past few years with your child by your side, you too have had the experience of the stewardess making eye contact and telling you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before assisting your child. They know Moms all too well. We jump to help our kids first. It’s tempting to dive into our checklist of tasks for the betterment of our kids even while we are feeling emotionally depleted. Fill your own bucket and then, when you express gratitude, you and your kids will get the full benefit because it will be deeply felt. Renewal can come from a simple hour taking a walk, journaling or reading a book. Don’t wait until you feel in crisis because you’ve had no time for yourself. Create a regular opportunity to invest in your own sense of well-being.
Discuss what and why you are grateful.
Create a daily opportunity to talk to family members about what you are grateful for and why. You could discuss your happy thoughts for the day on your way to school each morning. Or you could count your blessings before you go to sleep each night. Researchers Jeffrey Froh and Giacomo Bono, authors of the book Making Grateful Kids, found that it’s important to get specific about what you are grateful for with an emphasis on why.
Say thanks at mealtime.
Do you express appreciation for your food before you eat? You do not need to be a particularly religious family to be grateful for the cook, the prepared food and the journey the food took and people involved in order for it to end up on your plate. “Children who say grace during meals have developed more gratitude than their peers.” write researchers Froh and Bono. It may even bring a sense of calm and presence to your dinnertime if you take a pause before eating.
Write to show appreciation for others.
There’s nothing like receiving a heart-felt thank you note to make you feel appreciated. Instead of assigning thank you notes to your child when he or she receives a gift, sit down and write them together. It does not need to be a chore to accomplish but a time to relive the experience of receiving a present together, discussing the kindness of the giver. My son gets inspired at times and will draw a picture relevant to the gift or the person. Offer thanks for non-tangible gifts when someone goes out of their way for you or your family. For example, a classmate brought my son’s make up work to him when he was out of school sick for a week. Sharing your thankfulness for acts of kindness not only recognizes the giver but also reinforces the potential lessons to be learned about simple ways to take moral action.
Write for your own well-being.
Journaling can be personal way to write down what you are thankful for. It only takes a few minutes but recording specific people or events or even tools that made a difference in your life that day or that week can train your brain toward appreciation. Though journaling tends to be a solitary function, each member of a family can have a journal and record their own thoughts after reflecting together. In the month of November, we take a moment at dinner to praise one specific person or occurrence as we count the days until Thanksgiving. Though my husband and I contributed notes about our home and our health, our son recognized how much he loves pie and appreciates Legos.
Deal with negative emotions.
If we know and can use a number of coping strategies to deal with anger or upset, we feel a greater sense of control and it enables us to feel gratitude. So work with your children on what they can do when emotions run high. Practice constructive ways to express feelings physically and verbally (i.e. Running around the yard, saying “I need time alone.”) that are acceptable to you and do no harm to others. For more on this topic, check out “A Better Version of Yourself.”
Notice positive behaviors.
We all love to be recognized when we truly do something well. Children are no different. But often, it seems, their poor choices and mistakes take the spotlight. Get into the habit of noticing positive behaviors and commenting specifically on their value. For example, “I notice you hung up your towel after your bath instead of leaving it on the floor. It’s great to see you showing care for your things.”
Cultivate reciprocal giving.
Our sense of abundance naturally leads to giving. We feel we have so we are able to give. We all have a fundamental need to contribute something of ourselves to others but so often kids don’t know how. Service can begin at home in simple ways. Work together on caring for household tools. Encourage older siblings to demonstrate and teach younger siblings to organize their toys or supplies. When a family member is kind, don’t let it go unnoticed. Look for ways to model and cultivate small acts of kindness - a love note, a quickly-completed chore or a helping hand with the dishes.
Kids can be natural purveyors of gratitude. They bring wonder and awe to so many first experiences, encountering the world with a sense of novelty. The “firsts” for our children can be as magical for us if we take in the experiences from their fresh perspective. Build on this sense of discovery with moments of reflection throughout the upcoming holiday season. You’ll not only find a more balanced experience, but also enjoy the feelings of love and appreciation that are generated by your grateful thinking.