We all want our children to fully appreciate the good things in their lives and to know the importance of saying thank you. And there are now mountains of research showing that gratitude leads to everything from greater happiness to a more positive outlook, less materialism, more friends and stronger social support, more energy, a stronger immune system, and a longer life. Who wouldn't want all of that for their children?
We know that an important part of our job as parents is to teach children from a very early age to say please and thank you. But how do we help our kids deal with the darker side of the gratitude equation: the feelings of disappointment, envy, and anger that arise when life isn't going their way and they don't feel that they are the lucky recipient of gifts from the universe?
What I'm about to tell you is something I'm sure you already know: the shortest route to you wanting to tear your hair out and scream is to tell an ungrateful child to feel grateful for something. It's counterproductive to try and force kids to feel something they're not feeling.
Children need to develop a meaningful, genuine sense of gratitude over time; we can't impose it upon them. There is no point nagging. And though heaven knows we've all thought it sometimes, there is no point in dragging out the old "Think about all the children starving in other countries" line. It's a short cut to guilt and resentment, not genuine gratitude. The last thing we want is to create robots who express gratitude without really feeling it. Once children are old enough to understand the concept of giving and thankfulness, it's time to give them the chance to think about it and really mean it when they say thanks.
A far more effective approach is to make gratitude a daily family habit so that over time it becomes a natural part of our children's makeup. We can model gratitude by thanking others, we can suggest fun opportunities for our children to express gratitude, and we can talk to them about the good things they have and where those things come from. Our job is not to force our kids to be grateful. It's to be there to help them find their own way to a place of genuine thankfulness.
You probably have days when you feel angry or miserable, envious or frustrated, and less than thankful for what you're dealing with. Kids might not have adult problems such as a mortgage or rent to pay, a hellish boss, or relationship problems, but they do also have days when it's harder for them to feel thankful. Days when they feel sad, angry, disappointed, envious, lacking. I think it's important not to squelch the very real emotions our children have, even the negative ones. All emotions are valid, and children need to know that it's okay to feel them.
If we encourage children to block negative emotions out and simply replace them with rote gratitude, we are only asking for those negative emotions to fester, gain strength, and leak out in some other way. The path to genuine gratitude and happiness is through genuine emotion, so encourage your kids to feel and acknowledge all their emotions, and talk openly about your children's emotions with them. This helps kids develop their emotional literacy, and it also opens up the possibility for them to move forward into a more positive feeling. When we work through our negative feelings, we have the opportunity to see all the things in our lives that we are grateful for.
Raising grateful children is not about minimising their negative feelings, or pretending that their disappointments don't hurt or they aren't facing real obstacles. It's not about creating Stepford children who see only the good in everything and are happy 100% of the time. It's about showing our children by our own example that we can be sad or hurt yet still be grateful for what's good in our lives. After all, if we put off giving thanks until everything was going well and we had everything we wanted, we'd all be a giant pack of ingrates, wouldn't we?
Life will always be a mixed bag of joy, achievement, success, and getting what we what-and sadness, loss, challenges, and failure. So what children really need to develop is not a gratitude reflex but true resilience. When we don't get what we want, resilience allows us to see the good or the opportunity in the bad, and pick ourselves up and try again another day.