The first Mother’s Day after my own mother died was a tough one for me. I told my kids that I’d like us all to take a hike together, knowing that being in nature would rejuvenate me and soothe my sorrowful heart. I thought it would be a nice reminder to me and to my kids of our close bond.

But the hike turned into a disaster. My boys complained bitterly about the heat and squabbled with each other over everything from walking sticks to hiking songs. Instead of feeling the bliss of motherhood, I ended up sobbing and berating my kids for not being more grateful to have a mother at all.

This was not one of my proudest moments, to say the least. But I think it illustrates one of the conundrums of Mother’s Day. We mothers want to be recognized and appreciated for what we do day in and day out. Yet often our kids—and sometimes our co-parents—can be oblivious to our sacrifices or just plain reluctant to show gratitude. Or, at best, they may give us a small gift, but miss the bigger picture, as poet laureate Billy Collins describes in his humorous poem, “The Lanyard.”

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Getting gifts from your kids can be sweet. But I’d like to make a case for putting gratitude back at the center of Mother’s Day. Not hastily drawn cards, not gifts or flowers, but gratitude. After all, we ask our kids to give thanks every year at Thanksgiving for the bountiful harvest. Why can’t we turn Mother’s Day into another opportunity to cultivate gratitude?

I’m not suggesting a pity party, and I’m not just trying to be self-serving. Rather, gratitude is a way of making the good things in life visible—and appreciating the people who bring us those good things. As gratitude researchers Jeffrey Froh and Giacomo Bono write in their book, Making Grateful Kids, children benefit from understanding how adults in their lives help them in everyday ways.

Their research has shown that kids who practice gratitude display many positive benefits, including better moods, more optimism, and better social relationships. Grateful teens, they found, have higher life satisfaction, better grades, and are more engaged with school and hobbies. So, gratitude is not just good for Mom; it’s good for the kids, too.

How to make grateful kids

I believe that part of the reluctance to show gratitude may stem from our thinking that mothering is just part of “doing our job” and not worthy of thanks. Because that “job” consists of many small, repetitive, everyday tasks, often accomplished behind the scenes, family members can be blind to the efforts involved. For mothers who work outside the home, guilt over having less time for their kids may detract from their belief that parenting efforts are worthy of thanks. If anything, they may feel they aren’t doing enough. But fathers and mothers can step in to help children become more aware of what mothers do to help raise them.

One way Froh and Bono suggest helping kids with gratitude is to make time every day for kids to recall the good things that have happened to them and to acknowledge the often-overlooked efforts of others—including their parents—that made those things happen. For example, kids can be encouraged at the dinner table to think about the farmers, truck drivers, store employees, and cooks (parents) who made their meal possible before plunging in to eat.

Fathers can role model gratitude toward mothers, too, especially for kids who are too young to really make the connection themselves. And showing gratitude toward your co-parent has the added benefit of strengthening your marriage. Research has shown that when spouses show appreciation for each other, they are more satisfied in their relationships, feel closer to one another, and are more likely to stay in their relationship longer.

Mothers can act as role models of gratitude themselves, by giving thanks to others—including our kids and co-parents—who do kind things for us. If our kids observe us showing appreciation, they are more apt to imitate us, especially since kids tend to do what we do, not what we say to do. And they will appreciate the acknowledgment we give to them and to their dads, particularly if we avoid the temptation to couch our thanks in criticism for what they aren’t doing.

Unfortunately, there are barriers to gratitude that can be difficult to break through, including a child’s inability to see much beyond themself—a self-focus that can be developmentally normal. But exposing kids to the hardships of others—through stories or volunteer community service, for example—can help them recognize that not everyone has the same gifts in life, and to think more carefully about and to appreciate what they’ve been given.

Sadly, many American children today—including mine—live in a media-fueled world. Advertising that promotes consumerism at the expense of thoughtfulness can distract kids from reflecting on what’s important to them, like their relationships with parents and others. As Froh and Bono write, advertising encourages impulsivity and self-indulgence, which is “antithetical to gratitude,” and may also communicate to kids (and fathers) that buying a gift or a card is what mothers really want on Mother’s Day.

Thanks: More than a gift

There’s probably no research to test this directly, but I’m guessing that a thoughtful, heart-felt “thank you” to mothers on Mother’s Day would please more than a gift. In employee surveys, researchers have found that workers are happiest and most motivated when they feel appreciated. In fact, some management researchers argue that expressions of thanks are more important than raises for increasing employee motivation. Of course, I’m not suggesting that my kids are my bosses—much as it may feel like that, at times. But I am suggesting that appreciation can be more meaningful than gifts.

Some might object that the joy of parenting springs from giving without expecting anything in return. I agree; we should preserve at least one place of total altruism in our lives. But here’s the good news: encouraging your kids to give thanks to you might benefit them more than you. Studies have shown that expressing appreciation for someone in your life—through letters or in person—increases your happiness and life satisfaction and lowers levels of depression.

Logo for the GGSC Gratitude Project The GGSC's coverage of gratitude is sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation as part of our Expanding Gratitude project.

Saying thanks also strengthens social relationships, according to gratitude researcher Robert Emmons, at the University of California, Davis. It may be because expressing gratitude releases oxytocin—the tend-and-befriend hormone that has also been implicated in increasing trust, generosity, and positive emotions. Encouraging children to recognize our contributions to their wellbeing can help improve our parent/child relationship, as well as promote acts of gratitude in other social settings. And oxytocin never hurt a marriage, either.

Of course, if your kids aren’t in the habit of practicing gratitude already, it may be premature to expect them to suddenly start valuing all you do for them right on time for Mother’s Day. Gratitude training for kids takes time and effort, though the payoffs are large. Froh and Bono’s book can help parents get ideas about how to teach kids gratitude over the long haul.

But here’s where dads can lead the way. Fathers, you can encourage your children to think of all that their mothers do for them and make sure they let their moms know. I have a good friend whose husband encourages their kids to make a poster on Mother’s Day listing the fifty things they most love about her, which she hangs proudly on her bedroom wall. Depending on your kids, fifty may be too many to think of. But, dads can help out, maybe even adding to the list themselves.

So, I’ll put in my bid for a thank you this Mother’s Day, in whatever form. No flowers or Hallmark card would do as much for me as the sense of knowing that my kids recognize the efforts I put in to care for them and that they feel grateful I’m their mom.

And, happily, the reverse is also true: I feel very, very grateful for my kids. On Mother’s Day, my plan is to say so, loud and clear.

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