How Kids Learn Gratitude
There are simple ways to cultivate your child's natural thankfulness.
Moments of thankfulness open our hearts to joy, fill us with peace, connect us to those around us. They help us feel blessed.
Recently, scientists have been taking a closer look at how positive emotions affect us. Barbara Fredrickson, for example, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, has found that cultivating gratitude may actually undo the effects of negative emotions such as anger and anxiety.
Too often, though, when we try to teach our children thankfulness we go about it in surprisingly negative ways. We wait until moments when we're worried we have spoiled them for life. "You ought to be grateful for all the stuff you have," we tell them angrily after we have tripped over their toys for the 10th time.
Or we teach thankfulness as "reverse envy." I once heard a particularly grumpy Sunday school teacher lead a class in a prayer that was a classic of the genre. "Thank you, Jesus, for all the things we have," she said dourly, as her class of kindergartners bowed their heads, hands folded. "Because we know that there are so many other children who have no parents and no toys and no clothes and no nice house." The underlying idea here is that we ought to value our possessions because others don't have them--an approach more likely to inspire guilt than gratitude.
The reverse-envy approach was studied by researchers at Southern Methodist University and the University of California at Davis, using three groups of volunteers. One group kept a daily log of five hassles or complaints. The second group wrote down five ways in which they thought they were better off than their peers. And the third group wrote down five things each day for which they were grateful.
After three weeks, those in the group who kept gratitude lists reported having more energy, fewer health problems, and a greater feeling of well-being than those who complained or gloated.
What's the best way to help children experience the heart-expanding effects of gratitude?