Written by: Morgan Lennon
Oprah has been telling us about it for years. There are countless books and cute journals devoted to it, and it's usually one of the first things we forget to practice - gratitude. But despite its buzzword status, expressing gratitude is a crucial component to living a fulfilled life. In fact, a study conducted by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, reveals that cultivating gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25 percent!
In 2006, psychologists Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson conducted an analysis of parents’ descriptions of their children’s strengths, and found that gratitude had the strongest relationship to life satisfaction. So how do we teach our children to practice gratitude when we struggle to do it as adults? It’s much easier than you think:
If you've ever spent time with babies and toddlers you know that the earliest form of learning is mimicking. When you smile the baby smiles, when you shake your head so does the baby. This phenomenon exists due to mirror neurons which are activated both when the individual engages in an act and when they watch an act. Or put more simply "monkey see, monkey do".
When your little one sees you modeling gratitude, their brain catalogues that just as if they had done it themselves. Using please and thank you, expressing gratitude to people in service industries, writing “Thank You” cards - all these actions imprint on your child’s brain. Even when you think they are totally oblivious to you because Sponge Bob is on, they are absorbing information.
Good manners and gratitude overlap
It might sound cliché, but the first step to learning gratitude is fake it till you make it. Have your children practice saying "please" and "thank you". The repetition of saying it enforces the idea that others are not required to do things for us, so we should be grateful.
By the age of 2-3, children can express gratitude for physical things. By age 4, they start to understand intangible things like gratitude for joy, kindness, etc. Children who engage in “gratitude behaviors” are much more likely to internalize those feelings and develop true thankfulness.
Let them help
Studies have shown that children who have no chores or are not responsible for the care of their rooms or pets, are far less likely to feel grateful for their parents. That’s right. The more you do for them, the less they appreciate you.
Giving children autonomy not only encourages social and emotional development, but cultivates thankfulness. While it can be difficult to let them clean parts of the house (and I use the term “clean” loosely) or let them complete a task that you could do 100 times faster, it’s important for them to understand the amount of work that goes into their lifestyle. The more that they can experience hard work, the more grateful they are when someone else does it for them.
Less stuff more surprises
A trip to Target with your child can be a minefield for a parent. "I want this!", "Can I have that?", "You never let me get anything!" Sound familiar?
By nature, kids are egocentric and have not developed the part of their brain that is used for self-control and long-term planning. As any parent will tell you, the day after a holiday or birthday, half of their “must have” toys have already been discarded. Turns out, in this case, more isn’t better.
Studies have shown that children who receive fewer gifts tend to report higher rates of happiness and gratitude. What makes those rates even higher are surprises! Receiving a new toy or small gift for no reason, making their birthday “gifting” a scavenger hunt, or surprising them with a fun trip - these are the things that kids are grateful for. As we approach the holiday season, try not to focus on giving your child a ton of gifts, but rather making the gift an interactive and fun experience.
Have a moment of gratefulness everyday
Much like good manners, developing gratitude in your child takes work. When acknowledging our thankfulness is made into daily practice, it becomes second nature. One of the most successful ways to do that is to create a gratitude journal that you complete every day as a family. Have your child write a short sentence to describe what they are grateful for, tell them what you are grateful for, and make it part of your nightly routine.
Take a moment to give back
One of the greatest ways to develop gratitude in your child is to have them participate in giving back. We are excited to partner with Food Bank NYC this holiday season to run our annual food drive.
This is a great way to explain to your kids that there are others who go without all the things you need in daily life. Talk to them about how many children in NYC don't have the food they need. Ask them what foods they think the kids would like to eat. Have your child pick out some of their favorite foods in the grocery store and bring them in for donation. This is a great way to show your children gratitude in a real tangible way!