We all strive to make our children happy. Somewhere amidst ensuring they feel loved, are kept safe, remain healthy, succeed at school and pass through every developmental milestone with as little stress as possible – we want them to be happy. In fact, I wonder if you have ever stopped to think how many choices you make and actions you take on a daily basis to ensure this is the case.
We search for exciting experiences to give our children; we buy them the latest gadgets and games we can afford; we protect them from danger and hardship by jumping in to stand in their place when they are faced with difficulties; in short, we centre our entire lives around ensuring they receive, have fun and are happy!
But, could it be that by doing all of this we actually prevent their happiness? Yes! Because true happiness can only be achieved when it goes hand in hand with appreciation, a sense of achievement and a feeling of accomplishment, along with, most importantly of all, a sense of gratitude.
If a child (and adult for that matter) receives everything they desire or all the help they need with no sense of awareness on their part, they may feel gratification, but such feelings can only be temporary and are very different from the deeper ramifications of feeling gratitude.
Studies have shown that happy and successful people demonstrate much higher levels of gratitude than less happy people. Countless self-help books and philosophical papers have been written on the secrets of happiness and they all point to gratitude as a major factor:
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
(Melodie Beattie, Codependent No More, 1986)
Here’s the thing, unfortunately gratitude is not something you can instill in a young child in the same way you can teach them to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Gratitude and generosity take time to develop.
Here are a few things you can do to help raise a grateful child:
Speak the language of gratitude
Being grateful is a complex concept and one that takes time before any child can truly understand it. Making sure you, and the adults in your family, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ – role modeling simple acts of gratitude – is a good way to start. As soon as your child can speak encourage them to use these three precious words. Share how pleased you are with even small things that happen each day, or how lucky you feel when things go well. When I’m out at night with my children, we often look up to see if we can spot the stars and feel very lucky and excited when we do. My children now do this without being prompted. It’s lovely to see their reaction and the pleasure they receive when they can see the stars or the full moon!
Show appreciation to your child
Leading busy lives often forces us to lay down rules that can affect our children negatively. Constantly telling them, “don’t do this” or “don’t do that” diminishes their confidence and self-esteem. Instead, show appreciation when your child does something that pleases you or is helpful. For instance, children frequently want to linger in the playground after school when we want them to hurry up and follow us. When they do respond quickly, show them how much you appreciate their willingness to listen; show them gratitude: “Thank you so much for coming with me so quickly after school. I know how hard it is for you when you don’t get time to play in the playground but we have to rush today and I appreciate you being so fast”. Affirmation of this kind, recognising your child’s behaviour, is so much more positive that “don’t!”. Your child will feel good about himself and be more likely to respond as you wish in future without being asked. Moreover, in the long term, he is more likely to adopt the same positive responses to others.
Be sure to show appreciation for your child too! I often tell my children how lucky I am and how grateful I feel they came into my life. They love hearing this!
Engage with those less fortunate
When children understand that there are others less fortunate than they are, they often demonstrate wonderful levels of compassion and a desire to help – but it is up to us to help them grow in awareness. There are many ways to volunteer assistance in the local community. This could be at an animal shelter, caring for cats and dogs and other animals without loving owners. Perhaps your child would like to choose some books or toys they no longer need and donate them to a children’s hospital ward. Explaining that others are ill or very old and require help can open their eyes to seeing how lucky they are.
At home, we have a wonderful helper from Manila who has been with us ever since my first child was born. Her family has suffered a great deal due to natural disasters in her region, so over the years we have often filled large boxes with books, clothes, toys and kitchenware, to send to her family. My son and daughter are deeply involved in choosing what goes into the boxes. To be able to help others is very empowering, even for young children and they are reminded how fortunate they are for the environment they live in and all that they have.
Avoid plying your child with too many gifts
What parent doesn’t enjoy seeing the pleasure on their child’s face when they come home with a new toy or item of clothing after a shopping spree? Guilty! As parents we are happy when we know our children are happy. But, as mentioned before, this kind of happiness is fleeting and rarely encourages appreciation for what they already have or gratitude for having so many gifts. Try to limit the number of presents they receive, not least of all because most children focus their enjoyment on one or two items at a time. In our household, for our children’s birthdays, we now suggest close friends or family members share in buying one big gift rather than many smaller ones.
Start a family tradition of thanks
Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday of all the festivals and celebrations that occur throughout the year because it really is a time for gathering with loved ones and sharing what you are grateful for without exchanging lots of presents! And you don’t have to be American to enjoy this meaningful time!
There are so many ways to express gratitude. You will have your own ideas and may even have specific routines and special celebrations in place already. Another favourite of mine is the Tree of Thanks. Ask your family members and friends who come to visit to write on as many leaves as they like what they are thankful for, then place these on the tree (enjoy making this with your children) where they can be read by everyone.
Keep a Gratitude Diary with your child. Each day write just one thing in the diary you are grateful for. Ask your child what they would like to write and help them if they are not yet at the stage where they can write it themselves. It doesn’t have to be something big or grandiose. “Thank you for the lovely plants on my balcony”, “Thank you for the soap in my bathroom”, “Thank you for the postman who delivered my letters this morning.” The list is endless and you’ll find that little acts of gratitude for every day occurrences go a very long way!