One of the first things we teach our kids as soon as they learn to speak is to say “thank you.” Think of the countless times you have said, “What do you say?” to prompt your child to utter these words. But do our kids really have any idea what it means to be thankful?
Practicing gratitude has benefits that go beyond having a polite kid. Studies show that people who practice gratitude feel 25 percent happier, are more likely to be kind and helpful to others, are more enthusiastic, interested and determined and even sleep better.
According to Robert Emmons, author of “Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier,” people who practice grateful thinking “reap emotional, physical and interpersonal benefits.” Studies have shown that people who regularly keep a gratitude journal report fewer illness symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole and are more optimistic about the future.
So how can families practice gratitude in meaningful ways? Here are a few ideas:
■ Express your appreciation for one another. In my house, we started this as a birthday tradition. When it is someone’s birthday, we go around the table and express what we all appreciate about that person. The first time we did this, it was uncomfortable for me, and it felt “cheesy,” for lack of a better term. But when I heard the amazing things my kids had to say, it quickly became my favorite family ritual, and we often remind one another of what has been said.
■ Acknowledge the small stuff. When we practice gratitude, it helps us to be present in our relationships and to pay attention to our environment. It is easy to go through the day distracted, out of sync with our environment and the people around us. When you are with your kids, be intentional about noticing the beautiful flowers, bright blue sky, the helpful person at the coffee counter and the nice man who held the door for you. Your appreciation for the little things around you will rub off on your kids.
■ Make a gratitude jar. This can be a fun project for kids. Find a container, and let the kids decorate it. Cut up pieces of scrap paper, and put them in a convenient place so that family members can write down things they feel grateful for and place the paper in the jar. If kids can’t write yet, have them draw a picture instead. Then, open the jar once each week or once each month and read what everyone has written. I’ve been amazed at not only what is written between family members but also the long-lasting, positive effects this has had on our relationships, especially between my children.
■ Make it part of your bedtime routine. Take a few minutes at the end of each day to show appreciation for the little things in your life for which you are thankful. Write your thoughts in a journal, or ask your kids to tell you three things they are thankful for before they go to bed. It is important for parents to model gratitude for meaningful things like relationships, kindness and the natural beauty in your environment (rather than your 60-inch plasma TV or your new iPad). This is a wonderful way to end each day.
Kristen Race, Ph.D., is the founder of Mindful Life, an organization dedicated to providing mindful solutions to help families become more resilient to the stress in their lives. She has been a member of the First Impressions of Routt County Executive Committee for the past five years.