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Oct 14, 2019

Building Gratitude as an Attitude

Many parents and educators worry that today's children are ungrateful. But research suggests ways to turn the tide. Read more to find out how and why we should foster gratitude in children.

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Recently, I’ve been going through dozens of medical research papers as part of a writing project. One study stood out to me for its simplicity and its powerful message – The Science of Gratitude by The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. According to the study – and many like it – gratitude rewires our brain and makes it more resilient to stress. Children who develop gratitude grow up to become more emotionally stable and socially integrated adults. They also tend to be less materialistic and report higher levels of satisfaction with life. Practising gratitude also reduces the likelihood of depression in youth and grown-ups, even alleviating depressive symptoms in those diagnosed with the illness. Other physical benefits include better sleep, less fatigue, lower levels of cellular inflammation which can lead to faster recovery from illness.

There are various factors that contribute to the development of dispositional gratitude, or gratitude as an attitude towards life. Culture and environment can influence thankfulness, as do specific experiences. One theory, though, states that humans are intrinsically wired to be grateful. This is good news for parents because it means children only need a little nudge to move further in the right direction.

It’s common practice to teach kids polite words like “thank you” and “please”, especially when they’re just learning to speak. We would prompt them with phrases such as, “What do you say?” or “How do you ask nicely?” Whilst these habits might get ingrained, I’ve discovered that practising gratitude goes much deeper than just using the right words. It’s more about cultivating the right attitude and mindset – one that acknowledges the positive over the negative, or seeing the good in spite of the not-so-good. We want to build dispositional gratitude in our children, instead of just emotional or mood-based gratitude. How do we do that? Here are some activities that can help develop dispositional gratitude.

  1. Use daily check-ins to report “three good things” for the day. I’ve started using this on the kids recently. Instead of simply asking what they did, I’d probe further by asking them to name three good things that happened. For the older kids, I’d ask why they think those are good experiences or occurrences. I’d sometimes ask how those events came about, or even what the alternative would have been like had those things not happened or been present. Part of cultivating gratitude is having children acknowledge who contributed to their happiness. If you practice saying bedtime prayers with your child, you can easily include this into your routine. Have them express their thanks during prayer time and acknowledge the good things that happened during the day.
  2. Encourage the habit of gratitude journaling. Instead of having the kids report to you directly, give them the option to write what they’re thankful for in a journal or notebook. The exercise is generally the same but it’s more about them spending time reflecting by themselves. It’s also a good exercise for children to practice communication through writing. Gratitude journalling doesn’t need to be done daily – a weekly or twice weekly practice is enough to reap the benefits of the practice. This may be a more appropriate option for introverted and introspective children who enjoy alone time.
  3. Write gratitude letters to special people. Taking the gratitude journaling a step further, encourage your kids to write thank-you notes to people they’re thankful for. This allows them to specifically identify individuals who have added value to their lives. It could be their grandparents, a teacher, or even someone in the neighbourhood. This activity not only builds gratitude but also stronger social connections with other people. The letters may or may not be sent out – studies have shown that the simple act of writing the letters help reframe the mind and boost positive emotions. I would personally encourage sending out the the letters, though, as these can be a source of encouragement for the recipient. It doesn’t hurt to spread a little sunshine to others!
  4. Volunteer in charitable activities. Encouraging children to help others out takes the focus off themselves. It builds empathy and appreciation for their own circumstances, in comparison to those who have less. Volunteering also broadens their understanding of the world and how it works. Children who have been exposed to volunteerism tend to develop a more charitable attitude, which goes hand in hand with being grateful.

I should note that the benefits of practising and building gratitude in your children accrue over time. Don’t expect to see results immediately; as with most things parenting, we’re running marathons, not sprints. The upside, though, is that the positive effects of gratitude practices will outlast the duration of the practice. In some experiments, respondents have demonstrated a more positive disposition even weeks after they’ve stopped gratitude journaling. As you continue to build these habits in your children, the benefits will stay with them into their adult years.

Any parent knows that consistency is important in building habits. Regular reminders or prompts will help children develop a thankful attitude, regardless of circumstance. A good way to check whether your child has started to develop dispositional gratitude is to see how they respond to setbacks. If they’re able to identify the silver lining in their dark cloud, then you’re on your way to raising a strong, resilient young adult. Take note that it’s not about changing your child’s circumstances – it’s about how they can shift their perspective on what’s happening.

Lastly, another powerful influence on your child’s behaviour is your own example. As parents, we ought to practice what we preach. Showing thankfulness and expressing gratitude daily reinforces this behaviour in our children. When children witness gratitude day in and day out, the attitude of thankfulness will become second nature to them. And guess what? You’ll reap the benefits of practising gratitude yourself – greater satisfaction in life, reduced stress, and overall improved well-being. That’s what I would call a win-win situation.

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