by Ronica A. O’Hara
This Thanksgiving, there’s something to be especially thankful for—gratitude itself. Emerging research shows gratitude to be one of the easiest, most effective ways to kickstart happiness and well-being. “The good news about gratitude is that it is one of the more growable character strengths—and it’s never too late,” says Giacomo Bono, Ph.D., an assistant professor at California State University, in Dominguez Hills, and co-author of Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character.
It’s also never too early to “plant” it: Even toddlers love to parrot, “Thank you.” Research by Bono and others shows kids that are grateful are happier, more engaged and studious, and less envious, depressed, materialistic and prone to violence. It can be taught: After one week of daily 30-minute lessons on gratitude, 8- to 11-year-olds wrote thank-you notes for a PTA presentation that were 80 percent longer than notes by kids that didn’t have the lessons.
To instill gratefulness in a child:
1 Be grateful and show it.
“Kids are more likely to do something if they see adults around them doing it,” says Bono. “Being specific with your words helps, too, because it shows what behavior mattered to you and why.” Adds psychologist Mary Jo Podgurski, founder and president of the Academy for Adolescent Health, in Washington, Pennsylvania: “If we express our gratitude by making eye contact, with sincerity and by providing an example of how much we are appreciative, the words are empowered. Telling the grocery clerk, ‘I really like the way you packed my berries on top. Thanks for taking the time to be careful with my purchases,’ will light up the clerk’s face.” That can translate into a child not simply saying, “Thank you” to a grandparent for birthday money, but also explaining how excited they are about the game they plan to buy with it.
2 Enact a small daily ritual.
“It’s also good for families to come up with gratitude rituals,” says Bono. “Everyday conversations about the good things and people we have or encounter in life, and being specific with words, helps young children understand the connection between kindness and feeling grateful better.”
For writer Judy Gruen’s family in Los Angeles, this means a morning prayer: “When we wake up in the morning, the first words we say are those of gratitude that we have awakened and have the opportunity for a new day.”
At dinner time, some families play “a rose, a thorn, a bud”—with each person saying what happened that day that they’re grateful for, what problems came up and what they’re looking forward to. As a bedtime ritual, Heidi McBain, a counselor and author in Flower Mound, Texas, follows a routine with her two children that includes “reading, checking in about their day—the good/bad/ugly—and at least one thing they are grateful for from their day. And I often share mine, as well!”
3 Make gratitude fun.
By getting creative, we can make kids’ expressions of gratitude even more enjoyable. Business coach Kristi Andrus, in Denver, says that her family toasts a lot at mealtime, raising their glasses and clinking them. “Our toasts are simple, ‘Today I’m grateful, thankful, or happy to share ________.’ [fill in the blank]. The kids love it and the parents always smile at what the kids bring up.”
Charlene Hess, in Eagle Mountain, Utah, a blogger and homeschooling mom to seven kids, has set up a gratitude door with a sticky note added each day from each child. “This really helps the kids become more aware of all the good things in their lives, particularly as time goes on and they have to get more creative with their responses.”
“A rampage of appreciation” is what Jeannette Paxia, a motivational speaker and children’s book author in Modesto, California, does with her five children: “We spend 10 minutes walking around and appreciating all we see. My children love it!”
In the home of northern New Jersey therapist Shuli Sandler, when one family member shows gratitude to another, a coin is put in a jar. “When it is full, the whole family can go out and do something together, like grab ice cream or something fun—remembering of course to say thank you,” she says.
Ronica A. O’Hara is a Denver-based natural-health writer. Connect at OHaraRonica@gmail.com.