At the restaurant a young girl fidgets in her chair. The server places a tall glass of milk in front of her. “What do you say?” reminds her mother. “Thank you,” responds the child dutifully. As parents, we often play a role in this scene. But what are we teaching?
Ben Hall, father of nine-year-old Ella, asks, “Does the child feel thankful when she says ‘thank you’ after being reminded? I don’t think so.” Reflecting on his own childhood, Hall believes such an interaction merely “forces good behavior or manners.” He suggests real gratitude is “similar to appreciation and awareness,” something he and Ella’s mother are mindful of teaching their child.
Experts suggest Hall is onto something. Certainly good manners are important. But true gratitude runs deeper and does more than foster civility. Several recent studies suggest that gratitude is the single best predictor of well-being. A child who feels and expresses gratitude for the people, experiences, and things in her life is more likely to demonstrate resilience, do well in school, and build lasting social connections. She is also less likely to suffer from depression or engage in antisocial behavior.
But can gratitude be taught? Wendy Mather, social worker and former facilitator with The Virtues Project, believes a lot of the teaching amounts to good modeling. She says, parents “must cultivate the virtue of gratitude for themselves before they teach it to their children…It’s more than just writing ‘thank you’ cards. It’s the ability to convey our feelings of appreciation and thanks out loud and silently for the good and not so good in life.”
The language we choose communicates much. Occasional venting to one’s spouse can provide relief at the end of a tough week. But it shouldn’t be common fodder for conversation with our kids. Instead of describing the cashier as “crabby,” we can show empathy by saying, “She must not be having a very good day.” Or we can focus on the positive: “That woman behind us was so understanding when I couldn’t find my bank card. I really appreciated her patience.” As Mather says, “Model patience and understanding and optimism when it comes to dealing with trials and tribulations. Life’s challenges are our biggest teachers.”
In addition to modeling, Mather encourages parents to “catch your child in the act of practicing gratitude,” and label it. During a snack you might say, “You are grateful for that juicy pear; I can tell by how much you smile as you eat it!” Or when your child becomes immersed in collecting stones at the creek rather than sticking to your scheduled hike, take time to notice her appreciation of nature’s offerings.
Parenting can be all-encompassing. Busy moms and dads find it challenging to eat well, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly. But according to Mather, such self care is important in our practice of gratitude. She says, “We tend to run on auto pilot when we feel run down, tired, and stressed. We can truly savor and appreciate our riches, in whatever form…when we take care of ourselves.”
Ben Hall believes “we teach gratitude in times of quiet reflection.” He echoes the need for breathing space, both as an individual and as a family. In today’s 24/7 whirlwind of technology-enhanced communication and entertainment, creating those islands of tranquility can be difficult. Yet, intentional transitions between the varied spheres of our lives—work, school, community, home—allow us to reflect on, learn from, and appreciate our experiences. Hall says a period of silence before a meal allows us to “consider the presence of the food, the cook, and the origin of the food.” Rather than an entitlement, the food becomes a blessing and a gift—one for which we are truly grateful.
And the best part? Gratitude produces more of the same. A grateful person is more likely to reciprocate and to provide support to a third party, thus contributing to stronger familial and community bonds. As Mather says, “When we express appreciation we attract gratitude. It’s a language of love and connection.”
Ashley Talmadge is a freelance writer and mother of two boys. She enjoys writing about the many facets of parenthood, and her articles have appeared in dozens of parenting and lifestyle publications across the U.S. and Canada.