Gratitude does not come naturally to most people.
In fact, according to a 2014 study conducted by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, approximately four out of five children value personal achievement and success more than caring for others. The study’s authors concluded that “the root of this problem may be a rhetoric/reality gap, a gap between what parents and other adults say are their top priorities and the real messages they convey in their behavior day to day.”
In other words, raising caring kids who are grateful for the good things in life comes down to the Golden Rule: do to others as you would do to yourself.
My wife and I strive to consistently model the type of behavior we want our kids to display themselves in the hopes that our outward actions will reflect the emotions within.
We say please and thank you when simply handing each other objects in the kitchen, we ask each other questions, and we see how the other is feeling when in earshot of the kids even when we’re well caught up on each other’s day. Crucially, we also involve our kids in as many conversations and activities that provide opportunities for gratitude as possible.
Our son is five, and our daughter is not yet one, so I don’t expect much in the way of gratitude from her. The key here is to not expect much from him yet, either.
As Washington Post contributor Meghan Leahy wrote in article from August 2017: “True gratitude can take years to develop. It requires deep empathy and an appreciation of others’ feelings.” And empathy is a highly evolved emotion that a child’s brain can’t fully grasp, both because of the lack of life experience and simply because of its level of development.
As gratitude is not innate in most children, it must be learned. Therefore, it must be taught. And a child is never too young to start learning to be grateful, so long as the caregivers use a light touch.
The first tangible way my wife and I are teaching the kids gratitude is by doing what we call our Thankfuls at dinner. Each night, we go around the dinner table with each family member who can talk sharing one thing for which they were thankful from that day. It’s a secular take on a prayer, and already we can tell it’s working: for the first week or so of our Thankfuls, it was always a parent who remembered to initiate the sharing session. Now our son is without fail the person who says: “Should we do our Thankfuls?”
And even if he is thankful for beating a level in Super Mario Bros or for it being a sweet desert night instead of expressing appreciation for a warm, safe home, at least he’s expressing gratitude in some form every day.
The holiday season has presented several unique opportunities for my son to learn about gratitude.
I decided to get one of my wife’s gifts from the nonprofit World Vision, a charity that works to “empower people out of poverty.” A majority of the purchase price of the handmade silver cuff I chose for her will go to World Vision’s Where Most Needed Fund, helping provide people in need with clean water, warm clothing, health care support, and other essentials.
I involved my son in the process of shopping from World Vision, explaining how the money we spent would help other people and that by buying from this type of organization instead of from a regular store, our money would do some small part to improve other people’s lives. Sure, I could have simply said: “Not everyone has safe water, a warm home, and toys to play with, so you should appreciate those things.” But by doing something concrete instead of simply talking about it, I’m confident he better understood the message. (We’ll deal with the fallacy of relative privation when he’s older.)
As Christmas approached, my wife and I asked our son if there were any toys he would like to donate so that other kids could enjoy them. We weren’t going to force him to give away a single marble if he didn’t want to, of course, but we explained that he had more than enough toys himself, while other children went largely without.
Then, with a light touch, we suggested a few toys that he had outgrown or simply never liked that much. He jumped on the opportunity to give several away, and we thanked him for his generosity. Was it a huge sacrifice on his part? No, but the spirit was there. And after boxing up the chosen giveaways, we talked about how fortunate our family was to have enough things that we could give others away.
A few days later, our son’s daily Advent calendar gift was a packet of colored glue sticks for his glue gun (don’t worry, it’s a low temperature “cold” glue gun). He unwrapped them, realized what they were, and then hugged us both and thanked us as if we had given him a bar of gold. It was just a little gift, but he was genuinely grateful.
So maybe it’s working.
Originally published on Business Insider.
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