Five steps to encourage an attitude of gratitude in children
by Dr. Monisha Vasa —
My brain knows that gratitude is important. When I am in a state of gratitude — aware of my blessings, small and large — I feel happier and less alone. I feel more connected to the people around me and to my life experiences. I feel that I am a life force greater than myself.
But my heart can find it difficult to stay in a sustained place of gratitude. It is a practice of reminding myself again and again, to start over and over. Sometimes that means making lists of things I am grateful for at the end of each day, or at the end of the week. Sometimes that means taking a deep, conscious breath before getting out of bed and putting my feet on the floor.
I am learning to practice gratitude as an adult. But what would it be like if we could introduce the concept of gratitude to our young children? What if the word itself could become a part of their vocabulary, a daily habit like brushing their teeth? If children could experience the magic of gratitude early in life, perhaps the practice would not be so challenging or foreign later.
Here are five steps to encourage an attitude of gratitude in our children:
1. Cultivate your own gratitude practices. If you believe in the value of being thankful for all that you are blessed with, your vision starts to shift. You see the potential value or gift, even when faced with difficult experiences. Your children will tend to follow what you do, even more than what you say. If they see you connected and thankful, that energy will flow toward them.
2. Vocalize gratitude as part of an everyday conversation. Try saying things like: “I really appreciate being able to watch you play in your soccer game,” or “We are so fortunate to have and share this meal together.” Make a point to express thankfulness out loud — it can increase our joint awareness. The more we say it aloud, the more we feel it in our bones.
3. Discover gratitude, even for the small things. Children are inherently excited about both the large and small things in life. Encourage gratitude for the small, mundane aspects of life, not just the exciting “Disney World” moments. As we adults know, much of life is a day-in, day-out routine. The trick is to see the beauty and wonder in another day at work or another morning of dropping the kids off to school. On challenging days, all we might be grateful for is another day on this earth or the beating of our hearts. That is more than enough.
4. Encourage downtime for reflection. If we are moving at breakneck speed, it is hard to slow down enough to notice what there is to be grateful for. Noticing is the first step toward counting our blessings. Encourage time for quiet, rest and reflection. A good time is at the end of the day, perhaps before or after a bedtime story. Ask your children questions about the enjoyable and difficult parts of their day — the highs and the lows. This will encourage a dialogue about gratitude, as well as about the struggles they are currently experiencing.
5. Acknowledge the reality of emotional experiences. Kids, just like adults, will not feel grateful for everything all of the time. Sometimes we need to navigate through the anger and sorrow of an experience before we can come to a place of gratitude; otherwise, our gratitude becomes hollow and artificial. Allow your children to feel what they feel in the moment. When the time is right, see if there is an opportunity to include gratitude in the conversation.
The practice of gratitude is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself and your children. You will see all that is alive and breathing in the world and its collective energy and wisdom. Whether you are grateful for your breath or another day, or whether you are grateful for a vacation or a yoga class, they are all important. Notice your life and all of the details, and allow that noticing to sink into your lived experience.
Practice this conversation early with your children and take advantage of their young, resilient minds. Gratitude becomes something to share with them, deepening your understanding of and connection to them. You will encourage skills that will last them a lifetime and enhance their own sense of wellness in this world.
Monisha Vasa, M.D. is a board-certified general and addiction psychiatrist in private practice in Orange County, Calif. She is the author of the nonfiction children’s book, My Dearest One. mindful-healing.com.
Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 34, Number 2, April/May 2015.