Say I had a fairy godmother who would swoop down — magic wand sparkling, pixie dust flying — and grant me a single chance to impart on my kids one thing that they could carry inside themselves from this moment until forever. What would that thing be?
The answer is easy: gratitude. The thing I would give my girls above all else is an unshakable sense of gratitude.
Because what else is there? Take love, optimism, happiness, compassion, perseverance, empathy, generosity, kindness and humility — all the virtues we want our kids to embody — strip them bare and at the base of each you will find a bedrock of thankfulness.
But how can we help kids embrace gratitude? I put this list together as a place to start…
A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Grateful Humans
- Show them gratitude. Thank them for doing their “expected” household chores. Explain to them how doing their chores just made life better and easier for everyone in the house.
- Put out a gratitude jar. Have each of them write their happiest moment of the day on a small slip of paper with their name and the date, and place it in the jar. As the jar fills, you will have a bank of positive moments to draw on when life feels hard.
- Encourage thank-you notes. Ask them to name one thing they love about a teacher, friend, grandparent, whoever, and then sit down together and write random thank-yous just because.
- Give to the homeless. Pack sack lunches with them and together hand the lunches out to the homeless people you pass every day.
- Bring them simple gifts. Bring them small rocks and tiny beautiful leaves you find on walks — just like they do for you. It shows you were thinking of them.
- Talk about your good fortune. Let them hear you say you feel fortunate five times as often as they hear you wanting for something “better.”
- Thank those in service. Thank your bus drivers, airline attendants and servers, and teach them to do them same.
- Share good luck stories. Tell them tales about how lucky you were as a kid to have (fill in the blank), but do not patronize them with your tales.
- Teach the gift of gratitude every day. Remember that making them express gratitude may not make them feel grateful. Have them do it anyway.
It’s so simple. Gratitude and satisfaction are inextricably bound, and satisfaction is the antidote to depression, anxiety and fear. We know this.
Still, it’s challenging to cultivate gratitude in a culture that continually bombards us with the message that we need more. For most of us, feeling sated, no matter how much we have, is not our nature.
My parents bankrolled my life for 22 years — college tuition, rent, groceries, utilities, clothes, cars and insurance. They covered every penny from the day I was born until the day I graduated from college and I felt absolutely entitled to all of it. I can’t remember if I thanked my mom and dad at graduation. I appreciated it, I think, but it took me another couple decades to be genuinely grateful for what they gave me. At 22, I had no idea.
When I was in my mid-30s with two kids under 4, a failing marriage and a depression that stabbed into my lungs with every single breath, my therapist asked me to list 10 things for which I was grateful. I couldn’t name one.
She said, “Anything. Start with any small thing. You have two good legs. You are breathing.”
I was not thankful for my legs. I was not thankful for my breath. My existence in that moment was all pain and no appreciation. Three and a half decades in, I had no idea what it meant to be grateful. And I had no idea that all that pain and my absolute lack of gratitude were one inseparable thing.
When my husband and I separated, I moved into a one-bedroom apartment. My kids spent half the week with me and the other half with him. I gave them the bedroom and slept on a futon in the living room.
Every morning and every night I’d lay in bed telling myself “My house is warm, my water is hot, my toilet flushes, my kids are healthy, their bellies are full, they have shelves full of books and too many toys and clothes that fill the drawers in two houses, and they are loved. I have two good legs and enough change in my pocket for the bus and I can read. I have everything I need.”
It was the first time I actually felt what it is to be grateful. Every thank-you I’d ever said or sent before, I meant but didn’t feel.
Saying those thank-yous over and over made me focus on what I had, instead of what I lacked or wanted or felt deprived of. Forcing myself to give thanks every day right when I had the least to be grateful for, slowly tricked me into feeling content and optimistic. I was broke, but I had hope.
My kids don’t have a fairy godmother, but they have me.
I can make them write thank-you notes and encourage them to keep gratitude journals and ask them to tell the three best moments of their days, and hope that these simple acts of awareness awaken them to all the positives, but I can’t force them to feel grateful even when they are giving thanks.
I do my best to never say, “I wish we had,” to stay content in ways that let me model for them what it is to feel fortunate no matter what the circumstance.
Ultimately, though, gratitude is something they’ll have to find on their own.
I just hope they are quicker studies than their mom.