Focusing on gratitude is not a new concept. We’ve all been told to count our blessings at some point in our lives. And researchers are finding that the benefits of counting your blessings are actually measurable. It turns out that people who take time each day to make a gratitude list are happier and more satisfied with their lives. Compared to those people who aren’t practicing gratitude, they:
- Feel 25% happier,
- Are more likely to be kind to others,
- Are more enthusiastic, interested, and determined, and
- Sleep better
It’s seems like a no-brainer. I want those things for myself and I want them for my children. Easy answer – make a gratitude list each day and get my children to do the same. Many parenting books and blogs out there advocate this exact thing in some form or another. Maybe it’s keeping a family gratitude list on the wall, or having a gratitude jar, or saying one thing we are grateful for at the dinner table.
It seems to make sense to apply the same techniques to our children as work for adults. But, according to the authors of Nurtureshock, research does not bear this out.
In fact, Dr. Jeffrey Froh of Hofstra University conducted research on the effects of keeping a gratitude journal on middle-schoolers and found that there was no effect on their level of life satisfaction, or gratitude. Not to be deterred, he tried again. This time groups of children aged 3, 8 and 12 chose one person in their life and wrote a letter of thanks, which they delivered in person and read to them face-to-face.
The letters were heart-felt and sincere, demonstrating a deep level of thoughtfulness that had not been present in the gratitude list research. But, when Froh analyzed the data, overall the kids hadn’t benefited from the intervention.
It turns out that some children did benefit from the gratitude exercise. They were kids that were low in positive affect. They rarely experienced emotions like excitement, hope, strength, interest, and inspiration. For those children, writing and presenting the letter did fill them with gratitude.
However, for children who normally experienced a lot of hope and excitement, Froh’s exercise had the opposite outcome. It made them feel less happy, hopeful, and grateful. It made them feel powerless.
Why would that happen?
It seems that for kids with a strong need for autonomy and independence, it is demoralizing to recognize how much they are dependent on grownups. However much their sense of independence might be an illusion, it’s a necessary illusion for their psychological balance and future growth into genuine independence.
So, it turns out that having your child focus on how much others do for them, especially during those ages when children have a strong developmental need for autonomy, has the opposite effect. They become less grateful.
How can we inspire gratitude in our children then?
I suggest the following:
- Model your own gratitude. Talk to your kids about what you are thankful for. We are role models for our children and they learn to be in the world from watching us.
- When you talk to your kids about what they are grateful for, particularly at those ages when the need for autonomy is high, focus on what they are grateful for about themselves or their accomplishments.
- Make sure that all of your child’s fantasies DON’T come true. When kids come to expect that we will anticipate their every need, they feel disappointment, not gratitude, when they don’t get exactly what they want.
- Encourage your kids to look for the silver lining (and model doing this yourself.) When people look hard for a reason to feel grateful for unpleasant events or difficult relationships, it teaches growth and promotes change.
- Inspire Giving. Everyone, including the youngest children, possesses a wealth of ideas, talents, and skills. Find a cause that inspires you and make volunteering a family affair. Your children will experience the great joy of helping others, and as an added bonus will see how much they truly have to be grateful for.
I believe that parents know their own kids best. So use your creativity and your knowledge of your own child to help elicit feelings of appreciation. Don’t insist your children feel grateful, and don’t tell them what they should feel grateful for. In short, create an environment where those feelings of appreciation can arise naturally.
How does your family practice gratitude? What has worked and what hasn’t? Please share with us so that we may learn from each other!