Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Year-Long Gratitude

In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, many magazines and other publications include articles on being grateful and raising kids to have a strong sense of gratitude.  There's no doubt this is a wonderful thing to focus on.  The only thing is that I wish we thought about it at other times during the year as much as we do around Thanksgiving.

I care about this because gratitude is one of our hallmark values as a family.  Another is generosity, and the two go hand-in-hand.  Yet rather than be something that we talk about only certain times of the year, like when we are collecting items to put in a Christmas Child Box or going through our coats to see which ones we can donate to the United Way, in our house, I want gratitude and generosity to know no season, as cliche as that sounds.

Of course, there is no shortage of competition in trying to teach our kids these values.  Even though our kids don't watch a lot of TV, they are not immune to commercials flouting all the things they "should" have, and it doesn't take long when we walk into a store for the "I wants" and "Can I haves" to surface.  There have even been times when Esme brings home from daycare clippings from store circulars that show a picture of something she wants!

However, part of me is beginning to think that this type of behavior is not entirely on purpose.  Rather, I think it's another stage they go through, as well as something they see those around them doing.  So that tells me that my job as a parent is to encourage the type of behavior I want to see and not just harp on the behavior I'd like to eliminate.

The reason I say I don't think "gimme" behavior is necessarily intentional is because although they have their fair share of the gimmes, I've noticed that our kids are very thoughtful and kind to others, and that they have no problem when I tell them we are giving something away that we no longer use or do not need so that someone else can use them.  That's why I try to put more energy into praising the behavior we want to see than I do into correcting the behavior I'd like to ween.

I've found that this is actually a lot easier too, because I don't have to use all my energy explaining to Esme why she should be grateful and what being grateful means.  She understands right away when I say "Wow!  Did you see what a great helper so-and-so was?" or "High five for being so helpful!"  And since the benefits of extrinsic motivation like this will wear off before too long, I also try to say things like, "Doesn't it feel good to give something to someone else?" and "You must be proud of yourself for being such a good helper!"

In addition to using this kind of language, here are a few of my other favorite ideas for fostering and encouraging a strong sense of gratitude in your kids:
  • Be a good role model.  This one always comes first!  Say things like, "Aren't we lucky to live in a place with such beautiful trees?" or "It's so wonderful to have a warm bed to sleep in and something to drink when we're thirsty."
  • Designate a "Thursday Thank-you Dinner" during which you share a conversation about everything your family has to be thankful for.  Or, invite someone you are thankful for over to dinner on that day.
  • Have a neighborhood rake-a-thon (or shovel-a-thon) in which you rake the yards/shovel the snow of people in your neighborhood who cannot do it themselves.
As a writer for Parents magazine once put it, "As parents, it's natural to feel sometimes like we are perpetual givers, our children are perpetual takers, and no matter how much we give and how much they take, it's never going to be enough for them.  At those times, try to remember that egocentricity and selfishness are perfectly normal developmental stages of childhood.  How we handle those stages will determine what kind of people our kids grow up to be.

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