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Instilling a Sense of Gratitude After the Gift Bonanza

A look at the importance of gratitude, and how to instill it in children.

Photo Credit: Rusty Tanton/Flickr Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Rusty Tanton/Flickr Creative Commons
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With the excitement of Christmas now behind my family, I am occasionally haunted by fears that my two school-aged daughters will end up remembering the selfish, rather than the selfless, side of the holidays. They made out like bandits, and no child could possibly be thankful for all these presents simultaneously.

It's not just that I want my girls to be good people. A lack of gratitude can have disastrous consequences, as gratitude “has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners.”

There’s even evidence that teenagers who feel gratitude are less prone to problems with drugs and alcohol and less likely to have problems at school.

With this in mind, I embarked on a crusade to make sure my kids truly feel thankful as they are showered in gifts this season and beyond.

The first step was to show them how it’s done, and my husband and I have started voicing more often the things we are thankful for — everything from washing machines to penicillin (and, of course, our kids). The flip side is to resist the urge to complain about the things we don’t have.

I asked my two girls, separately, to name the top five things they are thankful for. Surprisingly, neither of them said toys. I’m not sure if this is a good thing, or rather an indication of the depth of their feelings of entitlement. My 9-year-old’s list included “food, obviously” and “books.”

My daughter’s love of books gave me the idea of starting a “gratitude diary.” Turns out, this concept wasn’t particularly original. Olivier Burkeman, author of 'The Anecdote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,' places a lot of stock in his own gratitude journal. “On the one hand, it really helps,” he writes. “On the other hand – well, come on. It's keeping a gratitude journal.”

Just before bed on Sunday nights, we all write down something new that we are grateful for, and explain why. Rather than a chore, it’s become a poignant, lovely little ritual that we all look forward to. It may sound cheesy, but according to Mary Jane Ryan, author of the book 'Attitudes of Gratitude,' "No one is born grateful. Recognizing that someone has gone out of the way for you is not a natural behavior for children -- it's learned."

Do you do anything in particular to help your children experience gratitude? Tell us in the comments or in a blog post.

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