Ask. Dr. Bronwyn: Raising Grateful Kids
Q: Over Thanksgiving, we went around the table saying what we are thankful for. When it got to my middle son, he said, “I’m thankful that it’s almost Christmas, so I can get lots of toys.” I was mortified. What am I doing wrong? I feel like I’m raising a greedy jerk. —Spoiler Alert
Dear Spoiler Alert,
No parent wants a brat. The holidays with the parade of presents make thoughtful parents such as yourself often question how good a job they’re doing when it comes to raising children who appreciate all they have and all they can do for those less fortunate than themselves. However, recent studies show that this virtue isn’t just important when it comes to a child’s moral compass: Gratitude is also viewed as a marker of future success.
Grateful kids, unlike their less grateful peers, are more satisfied with their school, family, community, friends and themselves. They tend to be happy and optimistic and likely to give emotional support to others. Grateful teens have been shown to be more engaged in their school work and less prone to envy, depression and materialism.
You might be wondering how gratitude can do all these things. It’s actually fairly simple, and it has to do with the brain. Research has shown that acting happy — even when you’re not — and expressing gratitude stimulate areas of the brain like the hypothalamus (which regulates stress and emotion) and the ventral tegmental area (part of the “reward circuitry” that produces pleasurable feelings).
I’m not saying it’s easy. You’re up against some powerful forces: Until age 7, most children are pretty narcissistic. Plus, there are only so many hours in the day. I get it — I abandoned my kids’ gratitude journals this fall when life got in the way. Fortunately, there are concrete and simple ways to cultivate children’s gratitude on a daily basis.
Here are some of my favorite strategies.
Have a think about what your child sees: How do you treat waiters? The Uber driver? What are your shopping habits like? How do you help others? Are you the type to count your blessings or see the glass half-empty? Be sure to make your appreciation public and apparent. Your child wants to be like you, so make sure you’re doing a good job of modeling how much you value gratitude. Additionally, don’t overlook your child’s thoughtful deeds and gestures. Tune in to your child’s unique ways of being thankful, like drawing someone a picture instead of giving a hug, and let her know that you notice.
Overindulging children diminishes their appreciation for what they already have and only encourages them to want more. When your son or daughter asks for something, tell him or her to begin compiling a list of wishes. Discuss the difference between wants and needs. Add columns for both on the wish list, and list items accordingly. Revisit the list from time to time and talk about things he or she no longer desires. This is helpful in teaching them the benefits of delayed gratification rather than impulse consumerism. Offer limited choices: “We will get you your top three choices for your birthday, but not everything.”
Point out generosity.
If another child at the playground notices that your daughter doesn’t have any sand toys and voluntarily shares hers, point out her generosity to your daughter. Express your appreciation to the child and her parents. Send the message that people notice and appreciate acts of generosity. Encourage her to reflect on how the gesture made her feel.
Identify fun ways to say “thanks.”
Brainstorm with your children different ways they can show gratitude. Encourage acts that surprise the people they encounter daily, such as baking cookies for the crossing guard or bringing a coffee to the person who sits at the school’s entrance.
Volunteer as a family.
Talk to your children about the ways in which they can give back, and decide on a volunteer opportunity together. If they love animals, consider walking dogs at a shelter. If they love to read, consider volunteering to tutor English-language learners. Giving and gratitude go hand-in-hand, and doing it as a family will make it even more meaningful.
Make gratitude part of your routine.
Consider starting a family gratitude journal. Find a regular time, such as after dinner, and encourage your children to write or say five things that they're grateful for. When I started doing this with my children, I quickly discovered how powerful this exercise can be. Bedtime also offers an opportunity to end the day positively: Take turns saying three things you’re grateful for.
Play Thank You ABCs.
Thank You ABCs is a fun game — great for the dinner table — that encourages reflection and appreciation for simple things. Go around the table reciting the alphabet, and use each letter to name something you're thankful for. It’s a good brain game for the younger set, too. Be thankful for the big things, like family and the health of loved ones, but don’t forget smaller things, such as easily finding your keys as you walk out the door or a smell that brings back a happy memory you had forgotten.
By giving your child the chance to contribute to your family’s household, you not only encourage increased awareness to the needs of others but also enhance feelings of confidence and emotional well-being. Your child’s contributions to the family through chores — e.g., using the dust buster to clean under the table after breakfast — present you with an opportunity to model authentic gratitude back to them.
And on that note, I’m thankful for all of you readers. Have a happy New Year, and best wishes for 2019.
Bronwyn Becker Charlton, Ph.D. received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University and is currently on the faculty at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the Department of Pediatrics. She is also the co-founder of seedlingsgroup.