October 1, 2014

Give Thanks: Kids Who Practice Gratitude Grow in Health, Happiness and Learning

My grandson D.J. performs a trick these days that makes us all melt. His dad calls out, “D.J., you’re welcome.” To which D.J. chirps, “Thank-you!” in his not-quite-2-year-old dialect.

He also says “thank you” when you hand him something he loves—say a blueberry, a ball, or his own special blankie.

Some experts would say that D.J. is too young to understand the concept of gratitude—that he’s just learning by rote what might better be taught later on. I’m not worried. His older sisters learned the habit of gratitude early and, wow, has it caught on.

Last November, the girls created a yards-long paper chain in preparation for Thanksgiving. On every link is written something they expressed thanks for. The attitude stuck, and over the past year they’ve initiated a “Thankful Christmas Tree” and a “Thankful Birthday Countdown” poster.

Now, here’s what’s great: this attitude of gratitude is propelling D.J. and his sisters toward health and happiness, and there is hard science to prove it.

Robert Emmons, a PhD, psychology professor at UC Davis, and arguably the world’s leading expert on the science of gratitude, has compiled the work of dozens of scientists and philosophers in his book, “Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007).

Emmons reports that in contrast to people who listed their hassles, people who wrote down blessings they were thankful for slept better, had more energy, suffered less illness, exercised more, were more optimistic about their future, and felt better about their lives.

And here’s a really surprising part: It turns out that the simple act of giving thanks can even affect how much our kids learn.

The best part is, modeling and teaching gratitude doesn’t cost a dime. It doesn’t take special training, and no special equipment is needed.

Ann Voskamp, author of the best-selling book, “One Thousand Gifts,” posted a blog describing “15 Happy Ways to Grateful, Joyfilled Kids.” Here is just a sampling of her ideas:

  • Post a sticky note on the mirror that asks, “What are you grateful for right now?”
  • Make space for thanks. Fill a window or wall with sticky notes of thanks. Hang a paper banner or “Grateful Tree” at the back door and invite the whole family (guests, too) to grab a pencil and writing down one or two gifts every time they come in or out the door.
  • Leave out a basket of thank-you notes, an invitation to always give thanks to someone.
  • Leave a “Family Gratitude Journal” permanently open on the counter.
  • Tuck a note into a lunchbox or a coat pocket inviting kids to focus on what’s good, and write it down. Share their finds every night at dinner.
  • Take the “no complaining” challenge. Dare to go all day with no complaining. Slip a rubber band or bracelet on your wrist and every time you complain, move it to the other wrist. Celebrate with a special treat when the whole family can go the whole day without moving their bands.
  • Model gratitude yourself. More is caught than taught. Intentionally live wholesale gratitude. Let your family see your joy!

Whatever you decide to do, establish your own daily ritual of sharing thanksgiving…not just in November, but all year long. Chances are, you’ll experience a happier, healthier family.

You can read Anne Voscamp’s entire blog post at aholyexperience.com/ 2012/03/how-to-help-raise-grateful-kids/
Not your style? Check out the PBS Parents article, “10 Ways to Raise a Grateful Kid” at pbs.org/parents/special/article-ten-ways-raise-grateful-kid.html