This is the time of year when parents scramble to find the right gift or give the perfect holiday experience in an attempt to bestow some measure of happiness on their children. Parents spend precious resources, time and money, to achieve an anticipated look of joy on their child’s face. Unfortunately, bestowing happiness by giving stuff to your kids leads not to happiness but to the expectation that more is better and moreover that parents are responsible for achieving that state of joy. A sense of entitlement does not lead to contentment and satisfaction, but rather, feelings of disappointment and frustration. While it is true that American children are probably the most indulged children in the world, parents who teach an attitude of thankfulness and gratitude can give their child an appreciation of what they have and a feeling of satisfaction in contributing to the betterment of the world. Here are tools parents can implement throughout the year to raise grateful kids:
1) Focus on the positive. Rather than focusing on a child’s lengthy list of wants via their Christmas list, help kids to “count their blessings” and appreciate what they have, rather than what they want. Volunteering at a homeless shelter, food pantry or nursing home can provide kids with an example of people living without health, food or family. Hands on experiences are great teachers. One year, my Girl Scout troop earned money to purchase baby supplies. Upon delivery to a local agency that provides care to underprivileged families, the girls talked with a volunteer who told them how their families lacked basic necessities such as diapers and formula. The girls left this experience with a sense of appreciation for their own lives and with an eye for future opportunities to help others.
2) Lead by example. Children learn by watching what parents do more than what they say. Entitled parents produce entitled children. Modeling values of putting others ahead of self and serving others help children understand the benefit and joy of giving. Parents who talk about their own satisfactions in life create a positive impact.
3) Teach children the importance of saying thank you. Saying “thank you” is one way to acknowledge others’ impact on our lives. Children’s behaviors that are noticed are more likely to occur again. Parents who pay attention to positive behaviors increase the likelihood that those behaviors will increase in frequency. So, thanking your children for setting the table or putting away toys increases the likelihood of those positive behavior recurring.
4) Media can also be a powerful influence on the way children see the world. Expose children in a purposeful way to examples of television, movies or websites that model giving. Movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” show children the importance of community.
5) Research suggests that one simple way to foster gratitude is by regularly recording things that make us feel grateful. Writing in a “gratitude journal” helps promote a mindset of looking for positive events and putting them on paper makes the events concrete. In one study, teens who were asked to record reasons for gratitude were compared to teens who recorded life’s annoyances. After a few weeks, teens who focused on gratitude expressed a higher level of well-being and life satisfaction with school, life and relationships.
6) Bring the positive aspect of life into everyday conversation throughout the year. At the dinner table, parents can ask kids to not only talk about problems during the day, but also things that went well. Parents can play a game of asking for “highlights and lowlights” or asking children to list three challenges and three competencies of the day. Children can learn that a focus on positive events can impact on their mood in a positive way.
The holidays can be a stressful time of year. Don’t get bogged down with ‘what to buy.’ If you’re able to help your kids focus less on the ‘stuff’ they receive, and more on the giving experience, you’ll be giving them a low-cost gift with lifelong value. And hopefully one day they’ll thank you for it!