I love my Thriving Parent Community! The mothers and fathers in that group are engaged and active, and always coming to me with great questions. This week one of them asked me how to teach children gratitude in a world of plenty… The question was prompted by what she described as an epic tantrum thrown by her pre-schooler.
There is a ton of research on gratitude, its benefits, how best to cultivate it and the historical precedent for its practice. There is so much information out there and no one needs me to hash it out one more time, so I am not going to bore you by reviewing it, but rather will point you here, here and here… oh, and you can also go scroll to the bottom of this post for even more on the topic. The point of this post isn’t whether there is a benefit to cultivating gratitude, but rather how to learn and teach it to others.
More than words, it’s an insight
We give thanks for the efforts others make. We take note of our good luck and fortune. We say thank you dozens of times in a day without really connecting to core of what it means to be grateful. Case in point, I was leaving a message for my dog groomer asking them for an appointment and ended the message by saying thank you. My six-year-old asked me why so many people say thank you, on the phone, like they say good-bye. He realized that there was an expression of gratitude, but no real meaning behind it.
The thing with gratitude is that it is not about saying thank you, it is not about saying anything. It is, however, about truly understanding our position in the world; our good fortune and luck in relation to others. I honestly think that it’s a really difficult concept to teach not only children, but most adults as well.
What becomes apparent is that I am ridiculously fortunate, that my good fortune is predicated on the efforts and gifts of others, in addition to my own hard work.
How To – Gratitude:
How can we learn and then teach gratitude to others? The problem with most advice on the practice of gratitude, it advocates for simply taking note of things to be grateful for. It assumes one truly understands what it means to be grateful. If they don’t, which is often the case with children, then this approach is no different than telling a kid to apologize for something they don’t feel sorry for; it’s useless.
Gratitude starts with being mindful of how we live our lives. It requires being able to really see the world and others, and to place ourselves in relation to those people, events and situations. It can be hard to feel grateful for what we have in a world of abundance because we don’t make those associations, and because we are not privy to the contrast between having and not having.
So in order to learn how to be grateful we need to first understand what we have, and secondly why we are fortunate enough to have it. I’m not just talking about things here, I am talking about opportunities, advantages, relationships… One way of doing this is by identifying experiences that make us feel good. Experiences that are just plain cool or enhance our lives.
If I were to answer that question, most days I would talk about my friendships, my freedom to run this business, but also things like the ability to read for pleasure, my kids when they are being awesome, and the fact that when I go grocery shopping I never have to look at the price of the items I purchase.
Once that is established, the next step would be to figure out why we were able to experience those things. Did someone else make it possible, did we happen to be lucky enough to be born at the right time, in the right family, with the right genetic predisposition? What would our day have been like without those experiences, and can we imagine others who might not have them?
When I answer these questions, what becomes apparent is that I am ridiculously fortunate, that my good fortune is predicated on the efforts and gifts of others, in addition to my own hard work, and that I know (and know of) plenty of people who don’t enjoy these same benefits. Suddenly, what I have, even though it may have initially seemed mundane, is incredible. The sense of gratitude is inevitable, because the contrast between having and not having becomes apparent.
Note that I did not need to deprive myself of the abundance in my world. I didn’t start by talking about children starving in Africa and homeless people. I started with looking at what I thought was really cool in my life and just tried to understand how I got there.
[bctt tweet=”Best way to teach anything to a child is by modeling. Demonstrate gratitude, empathy, insight in your own interactions and conversations.” username=”LifeinFocusSD”]
Say “thank you!” darling.
I have been thinking about how to teach this to children. You know what? It’s exactly the same process. Try it for a week: every day instead of asking your child how their day went, just ask them to name one or more things they thought were really cool, or made them happy or smile. Then ask them if they know what it took for them to have those experiences; you might have to help them here, because kids are incredible ego-centric and they are still trying to understand how things relate to one another in this world.
Once they and you have created that insight, it is time to work on empathy by asking them if they think there are people out there who don’t have the same opportunities. Ask them what it would be like to live without these things.
Your child might not suddenly become the most appreciative kid on the block, but they will start to build a foundational understanding of what it means to have, and therefore what it means not to have. What you’re doing is creating awareness of the interrelatedness of beings and events in this world, and then helping them understand that their experience is not universal. This will help them develop a sense of gratitude, and eventually reap all the associated benefits.
I would also add that the best way to teach anything to a child is by modeling. Demonstrate gratitude, empathy, insight in your own interactions and conversations; it goes a very long way.
Did you mean gratitude or…
1. ) What they really mean is that they want their kids to learn how to delay gratification without having a meltdown. This requires teaching delayed gratification, which can be done by not constantly meeting your kids wants the second they voice them, and concurrently helping them practice self-soothing behaviors.
2. ) The other issue parents often have is that they suddenly want their children to demonstrate appreciation for the multitude of things they give them, by showing ongoing pleasure and verbalizing thanks. This is really hard when new is normal rather than special – this is where abundance can be an issue. I would say that the technique I outlined in the gratitude piece can work here too, but honestly if you just give and give and give without restraint, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle.
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