Apparently (according to the mighty Google) people who practice gratitude experience a variety of benefits. Some of these include better sleep, improved physical and psychological health, stronger friendships, greater empathy for others, less anger, and an increased likelihood of winning the lottery!
Okay, that last one isn’t exactly true, but the rest are 100% backed by science.
One could argue that if you could reap all of the benefits that I listed above, mastering the ability to be grateful is sort of like winning the lottery of life.
In our “more, more” culture it can be hard to focus on silver linings. We are conditioned to want the next best thing, and keep up with the neighbors. Kids are bombarded with commercials and media that make them just as susceptible as we are to the “gimmes.”
The good news is that there are tweaks that you can make to your every day life that encourage a more grateful outlook for everyone in the family.
Bonus: the methods below don’t include a single lecture!
1. Say thanks.
When someone does something for you, say thanks. No matter how small the act, acknowledge it, and be specific. If your child brings her dishes to the sink thank her for helping out and point out how much quicker it is to clear the table and get to dessert out when everyone pitches in! If your partner makes dinner, model appreciation by thanking him for the time and care that it took.
2. Take time for yourself.
I’m not suggesting that you leave your kid at home with a sitter every night, but if you feel too guilty to nurture your relationship with a regular date night or to nurture your own body with a yoga class, you need to rethink your priorities. Kids need to know that the world doesn’t revolve around them.
Self-care not only helps you reset so that you can be a more present and positive (ie: grateful) parent, but makes the special times that you spend together all the more meaningful. It may be a cliche that we need to take care of ourselves in order to take better care of our kids… but it’s also true. It’s harder to be grateful when you are stretched to your max.
3. Focus on experiences instead of stuff to encourage good behavior.
For establishing a routine such as potty learning or daily chores, charts can be helpful. But in general motivation shouldn’t come in the form of external rewards. Instead of getting your child a reward for sharing his cookie with his sister, try pointing out her happy face as she eats it. Instead of bribing a kid to be polite at the family holiday party with the promise of a new toy, tell her how much you enjoy her company when she is acing so grown up and suggest a special activity to enjoy together that will allow her to keep practicing her social skills out in the world.
If your child is constantly demanding toys and other material items, that is a pretty clear sign that he is looking for external sources to feel good internally. Scale back on the treats and rewards and give hm an extra dose of connection. You can learn more about how to cultivate a more authentic way of speaking to your kid as discussed here.
4. Keep holidays simple.
Ah the holidays. They are creeping up on us yet again.
Sometimes children have so many presents they barely take a breath before moving on to the next gift. It isn’t uncommon for children open gifts at a super-human pace while the adults struggle to keep up… furiously stuff wrapping paper and packaging onto industrial strength trash bags. At the end there is a pile of stuff. And do the kids treasure each item? Do they lovingly write thank you notes expressing how touched they are by each one?
Perhaps (like me) you are chuckling to yourself as you read this… We all know that there are usually just one or two items in that pile of plastic that the child really wanted. The rest will be forgotten…until the child struggles to come up with something to say about the item in a thank you card.
Hardly a recipe for gratitude.
So if your son or daughter really only wants one or two things why not keep it simple? Give less and more meaningful gifts. Consider activities, trips or lessons that give your child something to look forward. I only remember a few of the items that I got for Christmas but I remember the trail ride I took with my dad in Yosemite and the friends that I made in my after-school drama classes. Think back to your childhood? What stays with you?
I have been as prone to holiday-mania as any mom in the past. The last few years I’ve been focused on creating new traditions and memories instead of going nuts with consumption. This will be our fourth year going to a beloved waffle on Christmas Eve as a family, and every year we go to a local neighborhood to check out their over-the-top decorations. These are small things but they are part of what make the narrative of our family unique.
This year for the holidays I’ve decide to try a new gift-giving tradition. Each person will receive four gifts from me: something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. I didn’t come up with the strategy but I think it’s a pretty brilliant way to keep things simple and take the time to really think about each member of my family. An unexpected outcome of this exercise for me has been just how lucky I feel to have these people in my life. My hope is that we can take a family trip with all of the money we save on random stocking stuffers.
5. Learn where you stand
One way to cultivate gratitude is to read books about the different ways that people all over the world live. Books and media about other cultures can show children that some people live fulfilling lives with much less than they do, and some people have much much more. One that we enjoy as a family is A Life Like Mine. Check it out if you are looking for a special gift for a child.
Model generosity. Whether it’s buying an extra meal at a restaurant to give to a homeless person sitting outside, or raising money as a family for your favorite charity, get creative and make giving a part of your regular practice. Even little kids can gather unused items to share with people in need, donate canned goods to a food drive, or set up a lemonade stand for charity. Get creative and you may begin to see possibilities all around you.
7. Practice Gratitude every day
If you really want to be purposeful about introducing a gratitude mindset make it a part of your everyday routine.
One concrete way to get in to the habit is by introducing a game called A Rose and a Thorn. You can play it any time but many of my clients have found it to be a nice way to encourage sharing at dinner.
In this game each person goes around the table and takes a turn telling about their own rose and thorn. The Rose is the best thing that happened that day. The Thorn is the hardest thing that happened. This activity encourages everyone to share something that went well that day, and thinking this way trains the mind to search for the positive. It also teaches turn-taking, and is a much more effective way to learn about what your kids and spouse do all day than simply asking “how was your day?”
So there you have it. While holidays may offer a formal reminder of the importance of gratitude, here are some ways to incorporate it into your everyday family life.
Love and Gratitude to you and yours!