Family Matters

After the Turkey, How to Cultivate Gratitude in Kids?

Gratitude is an attitude: how to cultivate it in your home

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As a health reporter who focuses on parenting, I often write of moms and dads who are sick, of kids who are battling illness or parents who are trying to figure out what disease is attacking their child.
 I know that tragedies happen.

There is no making sense of them, no palatable explanation for why a mom should be diagnosed with cancer while pregnant or why children’s hospitals throughout the country are doing brisk business. And yet I had never personally come face to face with this sort of sadness. 
Then my friend Deb Karby got sick. For eight months, she tangled with a liver sarcoma, losing her hair, her strength, her appetite — but never her desire to get better.

Sometimes, though, desire isn’t enough. Deb died last week, two days before her 38th birthday. She had lived a good life, packed with international adventure and multiple careers, with marriage and motherhood. But it wasn’t anywhere near long enough.

Gratitude is an odd emotion to experience in the shadow of death, but I can’t help but feel it. What Deb lost is serving as a potent reminder to me to be thankful for what I’ve got, which is absolutely everything I need. 
On Thanksgiving, it’s easy to let the turkey take over, to gorge on stuffing and cranberries and forget the essence of the day. It can be a particular challenge to impart these lessons to young kids, but I’ve decided to take a page from another friend’s playbook and go around the table each night at dinner, asking everyone to say one thing for which they’re thankful.

Gratitude is an attitude, the expression goes. I don’t think it comes naturally; it’s learned. After all, how are kids to understand they should be grateful for food and shelter and clothing if they’ve always been fed and housed and clothed since the minute they were born?

It just might come down to prompting them, which is exactly what the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center promotes with their “community gratitude journal.” Research has found it’s effective, according to my colleague, Maia Szalavitz, who wrote earlier this week about the impact of intentional gratitude on kids:

The most common ways to improve gratitude— making “gratitude lists” or keeping a daily diary focused on the things you are grateful for — build on this positive-focused thinking and are often a critical part of 12-step programs for addictions.
 And they are effective, as a study tracking feelings of thanks and school satisfaction among a group of sixth and seventh graders showed. In the study, 221 children were assigned to write either a daily list of five things they were most grateful for, or of the hassles they experienced, or no list at all. The gratitude group reported greater satisfaction with school three weeks later compared to the other kids, especially those who focused on hassles.

Christine Carter, the director of Greater Good Parents and author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, offers an idea from her own family, which keeps a basket of colorful cards out beginning in December. Visitors write something they’re thankful for on the cards. Those notes are then used to create “gratitude garlands,” which are strung from the doorways of her home.

(MORE: Why Gratitude Isn’t Just for Thanksgiving)

Over at the Huffington Post, Melina Bellows has begun asking her kids each night to think of “something, anything” for which they’re thankful:

Last night, I was lying in bed with my 6-year-old daughter Mackenzie. When I asked her what she was most grateful for, she thought for a long time. Finally she said “Parmigiano cheese.”
 I tried not to let her see me cracking up.
 But she’s right, it always comes down to the simple things…when you look at your cup half full, it always is.

As it turns out, my middle child already has hit upon the human need to appreciate and be appreciated. Every night when I tuck her in, she asks: What did you like about me today? She’s quite the little fashionista, but she’s not fishing for compliments on her outfit. She’s asking a loftier question — what did she do that made me realize she cares about others?
 Her query never ceases to stop me in my I-have-to-clean-up-the-kitchen/fold-laundry/dig-though-school-paperwork tracks. I pause and think about how she helped her little sister get dressed for school, how she made place cards for everyone at the table, how she got up early on the morning of Deb’s funeral to sew me and Deb’s sister handkerchiefs from pink satin.

Clutching that square of satin made me grateful for my little girl who has accumulated enough empathy in her seven years to divine that gratitude is about placing yourself in the context of this great, big, terrible, wonderful world. For that, I am thankful.

(MORE: Post-Thanksgiving Travel? Blame Jet Lag for Your Memory Loss)