We know we should teach our kids to say, “Thank you.” We try to teach them manners and appreciation so that they can be contributing, positive members of society. But did you know that gratitude is an attitude that is more than just words and emotions? It can actually be valuable to their academic achievements and physical health. And it makes the world go ’round.
Research shows that teaching our kids how to be thankful and have gratitude is an evolving, constant process that needs to begin at birth. While some experts say that true empathy and higher level emotions of gratitude can’t be fully recognized and repeated by children until they are approximately 7 years of age, new research has parents rethinking their approaches. Researchers at Yale University in the Infant Cognition Center have been looking into the questions about gratitude. What they have found is that infants as young as 6 months of age show tendencies to prefer characters who are helpful, as oppose to those who aren’t.
It is also becoming more evident that children who are grateful experience benefits that surpass the initial emotion. These children:
- get better grades in school
- have better peer relationships
- are less materialistic
- set higher goals for themselves
- sleep better
- have increased levels of satisfaction
- suffer from fewer headaches and stomach aches
- have higher immunity to viral infections
- have better relationships with family members
What parents wouldn’t want their kids to have these great benefits from an attitude of gratitude? The more difficult question to answer, perhaps, is how do we teach children to be truly grateful? Dr. Emmons talks about the complexity involved with gratitude, and that our children need us to model that characteristic. It involves deep levels of “self-reflection, the ability to admit that one is dependent upon the help of others, and the humility to realize one’s own limitations.” An attitude of gratitude is about being thankful for the little things in life and being strong enough to acknowledge our needs for the actions and words of others in our world.
Tips for Raising Children with Attitudes of Gratitude
Begin when your children are infants, using words that label and identify emotions, creating emotional intelligence and laying the foundation for empathy. Words like appreciate, treasure, and acknowledge can be a part of your vocabulary you use with even the youngest kids. So many times parents think these words are too much for young kids – but if you step back and think about language, there are so many words you never actually remember learning – they were just a part of your environment. Make sure that words of gratitude are a part of your child’s vocabulary and environment.
Distinguish the differences between needs and wants, and practice what you preach. If you want a cappuccino on your way to dropping the kids off at school, don’t say, “I have to make a stop because I need (fill in the blank).” Kids are very perceptive and will soon see even the little luxuries as needs instead of what they truly are – wants we can live without (just not easily some days).
Work together as a family to volunteer. Nothing raises your own gratitude like seeing the struggles of others and children can be very influenced by social issues. Serve at a soup kitchen together, rake someone’s yard, write letters to legislators for social or legal change, or find another passion you can share as a family.
Count your blessings together as a family. Taking time as adults and role models to verbalize what we are thankful for not only teaches our children, but it helps us identify those really important things in lives. When a son hears his father say at the dinner table that he is thankful that his wife took time to leave him a note in his briefcase, that son hears about love, commitment, and a masculine figure acknowledging someone else with an attitude of gratitude.
Surround yourself with grateful people and be that influence for your kids. It is just as easy to jump on the negative nelly bandwagon as it is to be on the train of gratitude. Kids who hear you complaining about work, family, and finances are missing out on the good and you will be more likely to see them complaining in return. Not often do I find myself cheering for more attitude from my kids, but when it comes to attitude of gratitude, I’ll take all I can get. Gratitude isn’t just for Thanksgiving, so invite it into your home whenever you get the chance.
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