It’s hard to feel grateful these days. Between the Pandemic, the election and state of our government, our divided country, civil unrest, fear of the future, and parenting kids who have been locked down with virtual school and virtual life, gratitude is not top of mind. Until today.
I received an email from a longtime client, thanking me for all I taught her about cultivating gratitude in her children way back when. She included a photo of the same “Gratitude Jar” she has pulled out every November 1st for the last 15 years. Every dinner in November Rachel and her family write something for which they are grateful—from Legos to food on the table—and place it in the jar. And each Thanksgiving they read them together. Yes, it’s Gratitude time.
Year after year I marvel at how crazy coincidental it is that Thanksgiving –the holiday of gratitude– is immediately followed by the gimme-gimme holidays. But this year it is different. Beyond the coming gift-giving holidays, gratitude seems more essential and imperative than ever in helping us to get through it all.
During these complicated, challenging, and emotional times, it is gratitude and its effect on our brains and its outward focus, that that we need. Gratitude, we are learning, is kind of a magic elixir. Not only do we need to teach our children to process the gifting holidays through a lens of gratitude and build this fundamental character trait, but it is gratitude that will sustain us right now and going forward.
Specialists in neuroscience are helping us to see the value in cultivating gratitude in our children and in ourselves for physical and emotional health. Dr. Tina Bryson, the founder and executive director of The Center for Connection and author of 5 important (and fabulous) books about children and parenting, shared the following:
“Gratitude is incredibly beneficial. It increases mental health, physical health, sleep, happiness, and improves our mood. And it also changes the brain. Here’s how it works. When we practice gratitude, it shifts our attention toward positive emotions, and we get a dopamine surge, which makes us want to do it again. Scientists believe it primes our prefrontal cortex to more easily feel grateful, actually training the brain to be more able to feel gratitude later. Basically, gratitude leads to more gratitude. Then, over time, gratitude becomes automatic, leading to so many positive outcomes! While we may not be able to control much of what happens in our lives, especially this year, we can begin with practicing gratitude, which will not just change how we feel, but how our brains work.
So, we know that expressions of gratitude…:
- Are good medicine when we are in a blue funk
- Assist us in deflating our negative emotions
- Enable our positive emotions (dopamine) to last longer
- Help us to become more stress resistant
- Strengthen our sense of self worth
- Have the power to energize us
- Can bring us hope
- Can change our brains
- Cause us to feel more gratitude and to “look on the sunny side.”
While Thanksgiving reminds us to turn towards gratitude, truth be told, it is a trait that requires year-round attention.
First, however, there are foundations on which gratitude is cultivated. It doesn’t just appear overnight. Just like soil must be prepared and amended before the crop is planted, so must we attend to the precursors to growing gratitude. Hopefully, this is not the first time you are thinking about these actions which create rich soil.
- Cultivate empathy. Children are born with the capacity for empathy. It is up to us to help it manifest. Call attention to how others feel in a variety of situations. Help the child to see the part others play in her own happiness.
- Avoid over-giving. Entitlement doesn’t come from nowhere. (Rein in your gift-giving family members, too!)
- Allow for longing. Children who long to get something, be it an item or a permission, know the feeling of real gratitude when it hits.
- Encourage “working” for desired things. Remember what Thomas Paine said, “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly.”
- Take pains not to reward your child with things. Doing so will cultivate intrinsic pride and gratification both of which lead to genuine gratitude.
- Do not make your child the center of your family. A family is a team, and each member’s well-being is equally important.
- Celebrate others’ happiness. Great joy can come in experiencing another person’s success, accomplishment, and happiness.
And here are some tips for GROWING GRATITUDE ALL YEAR LONG:
- Model gratitude in your everyday life. Take the time to express genuine gratitude and not just a rote “thank you.” Be animated in your appreciation. Children internalize their parent models.
- Express out loud that which you appreciate or for which you feel lucky. (Look at this gorgeous day! Aren’t we so lucky to live here?).
- Show gratitude to family members and familiar people. Studies show that people, in general, are more likely to express gratitude to mere acquaintances and even strangers than to their own family and their peers.
- Express gratitude when it is not solicited or expected.
- Do not demand rote “thanks” from your child. Rather, show appreciation when it is given, and encourage the expression. “Grandma spent a long time cooking this spaghetti.I know you love it. It would make her feel so good if you were to thank her.”)
- Catch your child showing gratitude and praise the act. (It made me feel so good when you told me you loved your sandwich today.)
- Notice little acts of service and express appreciation where most people normally would not. (It is such a big help when you carry your own jacket in from the car.)
- One parent can remind a child to express her appreciation to the other parent when appropriate. ( Child: “This Lasagna is really good.” Mom: “You can thank your dad for making it.”)
- Notice the small things and share your appreciation. (“I am so glad that I live here where I can see the leaves changing colors. I love those fall trees.”)
- Pay attention. Look around you. Be grateful. Remember that true gratitude is sowed in the pauses of life.
- Create ritualized opportunities for saying thanks. (Before a meal, at bedtime, on birthdays.)
- Keep a Gratitude Journal, a list of the things for which each family member is grateful. Even read it once in a while.
- Create a Appreciation Center. On a refrigerator or a bulletin board, place pictures or symbols of things that you appreciate or for which you are grateful. Talk about them. Regularly add to and change that collection.
- Insist on thank you notes/expressions of all kinds. Even at the earliest age a child can be taught to send a drawing that says thank you. Let your child see you writing a thank you note. Expressing appreciation is an integral part of receiving anything. No acknowledgment, no gift.
- Explore with your child how gratitude is perceived from different points of view — the giver, the recipient, etc…The ability to know how it feels to others when appreciation is shown grows along with the development of empathy.
- Model the joy in giving. One day he will come to feel that giving and making someone else happy actually feels better than receiving.
And, if this Thanksgiving is the first time you have thought about cultivating gratitude…
- Start right now! Every day until Thanksgiving have each family member write on a slip of fall color paper something for which he is grateful, thankful, or appreciative and keep it in a jar. Then around your Thanksgiving table take turns reading the papers.
- Start a paper chain! Every day until Thanksgiving have each family member write on a 3.5 inch by 1 inch link of fall color (or Christmans/Chanukah colors) paper something for which he is grateful, thankful, appreciative. Watch your Chain of Gratitude grow long enough to decorate your meal table or to remember gratitude at the next holiday!
- Play the Gratitude Game. Each person at the Thanksgiving table writes something for which he is thankful, grateful, appreciative without signing his name. The host hides one under each plate. As the meal begins, each person reads the paper under his plate and the guests guess the author.
These acts will be the beginning of your expressions of gratitude all year long and, in turn, a sense of well being during these difficult times. Gratitude thickens the silver lining that can always be found.