You know how it goes. You drive your child to school, send him off with a kiss and the lunch you dutifully packed. You host a play date after school, help with homework, refrain from putting zucchini on his plate. You let him hang out in the bathtub, have a warm towel ready, are all set to read his favorite book, and yet when he asks for his DS before bed and you say no, he loses it: You never let me do anything! You don’t want me to have any fun at all.
Believe it or not, this isn’t the time to launch into a lecture. As tempting as it may be, chronicling the list of what you have done for your child that day isn’t going to make a bit of difference. An attitude of gratitude cannot be thrust on a child; it needs to be grown.
The good news is you can start today. Link it to Thanksgiving if you’d like. Or to the benefits proven time and again by research: improved immune functioning, better cardiovascular health, a more optimistic outlook, increased happiness.
The basic idea is to develop the daily practice of noticing what is going well. For younger children you might ask, "What made you happy today?" For older children: "What did you feel grateful (or thankful) for?" Expect your children to say, "I don’t know" or "Nothing" the first few times you do this.
Noticing the good stuff is a skill that needs to be taught, modeled and practiced. Have your own list ready: there was no line at the grocery store; the leaves on my way to work were beautiful; my friend made me laugh; you guys did your homework without a fuss.
It’s fine to prompt your children, especially at the start – did one of your friends do something you appreciated today, did you eat something you really enjoyed – but refrain from directly telling them what to be grateful for.
So how do you make this fun? Get a big glass bowl and a giant bag of pompoms. Each night at dinner, everyone says something they were grateful for that day, choosing a pompom for each "thankful" and placing it into the bowl.
Or give your children individual bowls to keep by their bedsides, making this a nighttime routine. If your children like art projects, help them create a collage of the things they are thankful for, or outline a majestic tree to be "filled in" over time with the good things that happen.
Accept whatever responses your children give, gently prompting them to pay attention to the little things, small triumphs, acts of kindness and grace that undoubtedly fill their days.
Expect your child to first focus on "stuff" (I’m glad I got some magic cards) and major events (we’re going to Disney World soon), personal victories ("I’m glad I got an A on my math test") and avoidance of bad things ("I’m glad I didn’t get a shot at the doctor’s today").
Ask pointed questions ("when you went outside after school, was there anything you felt grateful about?") and lead by example ("I scooped an armful of clothes out of the dryer today and stuck my face right into them – they were so warm and smelled so good!").
Don’t expect anything to change in a day. Or a week. Growing gratitude takes time.
The changes may be subtle at first. Less moaning from them; less prompting required by you. More meaningful things on your child’s list. And eventually, spontaneous thank-you’s. The ability to see what is there, rather than what is missing. A happier, more thankful child. Now that’s something to be grateful for.