Pass the Gratitude, Please

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An interview with Annie Zirkel

Tis the season of gratitude, giving, and…greed?  We hope not!  But, the gift lists are coming in, expectations are riding high, and we mamas are wondering what is the best way to instill gratitude into those anticipating eyes.  Annie Zirkel, author of “You’ll Thank Me Later — a Guide to Raising Grateful Children,” and parenting consultant, talks gratitude – and why it’s key to a fulfilling life.

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How do children (age 3-6) benefit from learning to be grateful?

First, I’d like to define gratitude as the ability to notice and connect in a positive way to one’s circumstances. This noticing and appreciation are critical components for happiness, connectedness, resiliency and even protection from entitlement and selfishness. Studies show that children who practice gratitude enjoy school and their families more, and are less materialistic. Not only is gratitude beneficial to children, it’s actually a key ingredient to a happy and abundant life for all of us.

Could you give a few day-to-day examples of how we can teach our 3-6 year olds to be grateful?

Gratitude is considered a slow-growing trait.  This means it must be nurtured and expected to develop over a long period of time for it to ‘stick’. Here are some everyday ways to support the growth of gratitude.

Teach manners: Being polite and expressing gratitude is not really the same as feeling the sensations of gratefulness. But it is important. Discuss with your children why we say thank you – because it acknowledges the giver and the gesture – and then teach and help them develop this skill.

Help them notice: When nice things happen for kids (even very little children), help them connect to their appreciation. “Wow, wasn’t that nice that Aunt Susie came over and played that game with you? She really loves you.” “Boy wasn’t that fun to get to go to the park and play at the playground? What a nice day that was.” These kinds of commentaries plant seeds for children to be better noticers themselves.

Model gratitude: The best thing parents can do to instill gratitude in children, is to model it. Thank the people in your life – the cashier, the bank teller, the person who holds the door for you. Also, thank your partner for their contributions to the family.  Thank your children when they are cooperative or enjoyable to be around. “Thank you for being so good in the store today. That really helped make the trip more fun.”

How and when should parents give perks to children, like gifts?

One of the biggest challenges to instilling gratitude in children is parents give and do way too much for their kids. This over-abundance of stuff and support leaves little time for children to reflect on their good fortunes or develop gratitude. Delaying gratification is a way to ward off the condition of entitlement that often accompanies this overly generous model.

On a small scale, delayed gratification can be as simple as telling your child he can have a cookie after dinner. But giving this concept a boost might include bigger objectives. One story in my book is about collecting empty oatmeal packets to send in to a company to get a small lego set. Another example is to have your child “work” for something extra. So, getting ice cream might mean helping match 25 pairs of socks. (Which could take a week!)

Gifts are wonderful, but when they come too often or are too big it tends to set up unreasonable expectations, and many of the smaller pleasantries get lost.

What are reasonable expectations for monitoring whether the trait of gratitude is sinking in?

Parents, with their much more mature perspectives, sometimes expect too much of a sense of gratitude from their children. Appreciating that children are “here-and-now” beings and that gratitude is a reflective process which may take years to truly develop, parents do best when they focus on sending reasonable messages AND incorporate traditions and practices of gratitude over the years. 10hunting Often though, children do not ‘get it’ until much later. Sometimes not until they themselves become parents.

Annie Zirkel, LPC is a Mom, Parenting Consultant, Speaker and Author of “You’ll Thank Me Later – A Guide to Raising Grateful Children (& Why That Matters).”

This article was originally published December 11, 2014

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Posted in: Expert Advice, Parental Wisdom, Holidays, Mindfulness