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Some Kids Just Aren’t Thankful

November 25, 2009 | The Main Dish | 10 comments

"To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven."
–―Johannes A. Gaertner

Gratitude is a part of the happiness holy grail: compared with those who aren't practicing gratitude, scientists have found that people practicing gratitude:

  • Are considerably more enthusiastic, interested, and determined;
  • Feel 25% happier;
  • Are more likely to be both kind and helpful to others.

Who doesn't want these things for their kids?

What we've learned is that gratitude is a SKILL, like learning to speak German or swing a bat: it needs to be taught to kids, and it needs to be practiced consciously and deliberately. If your family doesn't have a regular gratitude routine, this is the week to start it.

Practicing gratitude can be blissfully simple: just count the things in your life that you feel thankful for, and ask your kids to do the same.

But this can be easier said than done, especially since some people just aren't that grateful, and they really don't want to be poked and prodded to practice gratitude.

One Size Does NOT Fit All

Turns out that not all people benefit from some gratitude practices. Having adolescents simply keep lists of things that they are thankful for doesn't always increase their happiness and well-being in the ways that we would expect, based on the adult gratitude research. Why?

Many young teens are at that stage in their development where they are grasping for independence. So doing something that reminds them of how dependent they are on others, as gratitude practices can, can threaten their perception that they're independent beings, liberating themselves from mom and dad. For these teens, then, it's important to find gratitude practices that elicit feelings of appreciation but that don't make them feel totally beholden to those around them. Putting the focus on what they feel grateful for about themselves or their own accomplishments can both elicit gratitude and emphasize their self-reliance.

The key with routine gratitude practices is creativity, and attention to the fact that we are simply trying to elicit a positive emotion—feelings of appreciation—just like we might try to elicit a smile from a baby. This means not insisting kids feel grateful, and certainly not telling them what they should feel grateful for; instead, it's about creating an environment and situation where the feelings can naturally arise. Here are some ideas for this holiday season:

  • Start a tradition of writing "appreciations" on place cards. When hosting friends and family for a holiday meal, make large place cards for each person present, and then ask people to write things that they appreciate about one another on the inside of the place cards. Don't ask people to write something about everyone present unless they want to – you don't want to force the exercise. But do make sure that everyone has at least one thing written inside their place card, so that during the meal you can go around the table and share appreciations.
  • Start a gratitude calendar. In the spirit of advent calendars, Fiona's fabulous teacher, whom I appreciate VERY much, had the kids create a calendar with pockets that hold slips of paper on which they write the things they are thankful for (see the slide show above). The things they write on those little pieces of paper—and then proudly place in the pockets of the calendar they made—are heart-warming and heart-felt. Kids wrote things on a half-dozen slips of paper or more and were thankful for a range of things. Moms figured in heavily, as did pets, friends, and favorite toys. (They were also funny: Henry, for example, is thankful for his "gift for doodling," while Judge is thankful for his "good looks and style." )
  • Keep a family "gratitude list" or collection of things family members feel thankful for. Post a huge sheet of paper on your fridge and ask everyone to contribute to it when the spirit moves them. Anything can go on the list, no matter how large or small—people, places, toys, events, nature. Variations on this theme are endless. This year we are going to post the holiday card photos we receive from friends and family; under each card we'll list the qualities those people possess that make us feel grateful for them.

How does your family practice gratitude? What has worked and what hasn't? I'll repost the best ideas next week, so send in your contributions asap! Be sure to let us know the ages of your kids.

© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

Selected references:

Bronson, Po, and Ashley Merryman. Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children. New York: Twelve, 2009.

Emmons, Robert A. "Pay It Forward." Greater Good, 2007.

Emmons, Robert A., and Michael E. McCullough. The Psychology of Gratitude. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Froh, Jeffrey, David Miller, and Stephanie Snyder. "Gratitude in Children and Adolescents: Development, Assessment, and School-Based Intervention." School Psychology Forum: Research in Practice 2, no. 1 (2007): 1-13.

Froh, Jeffrey, William Sefnick, and Robert Emmons. "Counting Blessings in Early Adolescents: An Experimental Study of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being." Journal of School Psychology 46, no. 2 (2008): 213-33.

Seligman, Martin E.P., Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park, and Christopher Peterson. "Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions." American Psychologist 60, no. 5 (2005): 410-21.

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I really like this post (and the slideshow from the class with those adorable, familiar faces).

Our family does something almost every night around dinner that my daughter picked up from summer camp, which is what we call the “flower routine” of listing “thorns, stems, flowers and buds.” We take turns talking about something not so great from the day (thorn), something that could have gone better (stem), the best thing about the day (flower) and one thing we’re looking forward to (bud). It gets them to express gratitude for the flowers — sometimes they make “a bouquet” with all that they’re grateful for from the day — and it seems the kids are eager to participate in this conversation because it lets them share the negative with the positive; it also is forward-thinking (expressing gratitude and excitement for what’s coming up, the “bud”) as well as reflective on the day. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sarah | 2:42 am, November 26, 2009 | Link

 

Excellent point about teens and reliance. I’m thinking that, as parents, we need to assist our children and teens in feeling better about reliance in the first place. Especially with boys – helping them feel ok about needing others is so important. Expressing our own interdependence on others in positive ways – work, spouse, even our kids – sets this dynamic in a good light.
Also, with teens especially, having good boundaries, respecting their independence, getting input for what and how they share their appreciation while still asking them to consider gratitude is crucial for helping them stay more connected to others and be less prone to entitlement issues. Gratitude is pretty important stuff!
[Note: As the author of You’ll Thank Me Later - Guide to Nurturing Gratitude In Our Children (And Why That Matters) this is a subject dear to my heart.]

Annie Zirkel | 9:13 am, December 1, 2009 | Link

 

In our family we started a Advent Prayer Calendar.  My daughter (almost 3) is just old enough to be able to remember what “tomorrow” means, so instead of a piece of candy everyday, we asked members of our families to submit a prayer they would like us to say for them and we put each one into one of the dates.  My daughter doesn’t really get it.  But I started sharing the prayers that get submitted in an email to the family each day.  That’s been a lot more successful!  A nice way to stay connected with those who are so dear to us, and yet we never see them. 
Another unexpected plus is that we all seem to think so much about our children and not so much about ourselves.  It was a big step for many in our family to say, please keep me in your thoughts and prayers.  And once we did, it really opened up an avenue of communication that is not often travelled.  (OK, it’s only Dec 6, but we did find out about a tumor that one of us didn’t want to “bother” family with).
I really like that Flower Routine, too!

Janine | 1:22 pm, December 6, 2009 | Link

 

I love the idea and think it is important for children to learn the art of appreciation and gratitude from an early age.
I’m amazed by my 3 year old son who shows appreciation for both the positive and negative experiences in his life. I have truly learnt through him to be grateful for everything.
To further the expression of gratitude I created an online gratitude journal gratefulfor.com and the simply act of journaling my gratefulness everyday has definitely made me feel much happier.

James Godwin | 3:16 am, December 15, 2009 | Link

 

Hi!
I wanted to respond to your request on ideas of how different families practice gratitude.
This advent season we began being intentional about including thankfulness into our evening prayers.  Specifically, my children, ages 5 and 8, along with myself and dad think of something that happened during the day that we were thankful for.  As we are preparing for bed we thank God for those blessings.  We have thanked God for the opportunity to play with friends, for dinner dates, for time to play video games, for watching TV with Papa, for snowball fights, for hugs, and more.  It has been fun to think about the positive things that happened during our day and remembering to thank God for the gifts He gives us.  This is a practice we plan to continue well past advent and it will be fun to see our gratitude strengthen.
Thank you for the opportunity to share.

S.T. | 12:51 pm, December 30, 2009 | Link

 

The preschool my daughter attends practices gratitude every day during “circle time.”  The teachers have a list of each child’s name, and they write down what each child says he or she is thankful for that day.  They then post the list next to the sign-out sheet so that parents can see what their child’s daily response was.  There is never any judgment regarding whether a child’s response is “appropriate,” so they can range from “I am grateful for popsicles” to “I am grateful that grandma is out of the hospital.”  But they always bring a smile to my face and give us something interesting to discuss on the ride home.

T.C. | 12:52 pm, December 30, 2009 | Link

 

Some Kids are not thankful.I agree. It should come naturally and mostly comes from family environment and from observing adults around.Direct teaching wont help.If we teach them they will not do and especially teenagers.Sometimes they learn from their own experiences..They learn from experience how it helps in their social relationship and friendship.

Y.P. | 12:53 pm, December 30, 2009 | Link

 

Hi Christine,
Love this article on gratitude.
Every night at the dinner table we say grace. We go around the table each thanking God for one thing we are grateful for – things range from the food on our table to having a roof over our head and being together. We do this grace even when the girls have friends over.  It is a good way to remind us all of how much we have to be thankful for. We also use this time to pray for others that are in need, sick, etc..
Girls ages: 7, 9 and 12.
Happy T day!

A.P. | 12:54 pm, December 30, 2009 | Link

 

Christine; I remember a long time ago you taught your kids to say the things they were thankful for at night.  I really think

it starts so early in life and it does come with “great parenting.”  Same as respect for others and on and on.

Bless you, my friend.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving with your wonderful family.

B.F. | 12:55 pm, December 30, 2009 | Link

 

This past Thanksgiving, while driving in the car, I had a random idea of having my kids play a variation of “I Spy”.
The game started with “I’m thankful for something that is….” and then the kids would give a clue so the rest of us could guess what they were thankful for. It worked better than I expected. They wanted to play it again on the way home. It made me realize how much we have to be thankful for and how observant and sincere children can be.
Thanks for the great blog. Keep it up.
——-

Ryan C. | 8:23 pm, January 1, 2010 | Link

 
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