Cultivating Gratitude

Aliza Pressman, PhD, co-founding director of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center, believes instilling a sense of thankfulness in children makes them happier people.

Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage and tangled Christmas tree lights.” And I’m pretty sure that about sums up a lot of what my clients (and I) think about as we raise children. It might seem simple, but consider how difficult it is to remember these examples when we over-curate our children’s day-to-day experiences. A lot of our focus is on alleviating the discomfort of a rainy day, or lost luggage or the frustration of those tangled lights, and far less focus on teaching them how to appreciate what we have, and take setbacks in stride.

Part of that is that we have a hard time sitting with our children’s distress—yet in creating a perfect, smooth-sailing environment, we often rob them of the experience of actually appreciating what they have been given. That thankfulness is known as gratitude. Cultivating a real sense of appreciation and an ability to manage when things don’t go perfectly hand in hand. A grateful person knows that despite the rain, things are pretty awesome, and may be able to find humor in the unexpected adventures of lost luggage. Like all things, building a sense of gratitude takes time and practice. When you practice something, anything, it grows stronger. Here are some ways you can help cultivate an attitude of gratitude in your family culture:

  1. Start by modeling gratitude habits. Make sure you take time every day to notice things that you are grateful for. Slow down. Take a deep breath in front of your kids, and find away to notice anything around you that makes you smile.
  2. Say “thank you” every single time anyone does anything for you, from opening a door to sharing a story. Saying “thank you” reminds you and your child that you are naming your appreciation out loud. For younger children, practice through pretend play. If your child has trouble, go ahead and offer to say it together. You are planting seeds of a practice; it doesn’t need to happen overnight.
  3. Name moments when you appreciate your children’s actions and behavior. Narrate for them what they are doing that you feel grateful for. You also can mention that you are grateful for them, but this is more about noticing the small day-to-day things they do that are helpful or thoughtful.
  4. Create a ritual around a gratitude practice. One idea is have everyone give their rose, thorn, bud and feather of the week: a rose is something to feel grateful for; a thorn is a difficult or unpleasant experience; a bud is something to look forward to; and a feather is something that made you laugh. Any order is fine, but it’s nice to end with something positive. This is a concrete way to practice noticing things you appreciate while also acknowledging that not everything is always awesome.
  5. Think about ways to help other people in your immediate community. It feels good to find ways to help others, and doing so can also really help children appreciate what they have. It’s also an important way to model a lifelong practice of helping others who may not be as fortunate.
  6. Write it down. It may seem like a hokey thing to do, but taking time every day or every week to write down something or someone you are grateful for can grow your gratitude muscle. Even if you are hesitant, try it. See what happens. This can be something you do as a family ritual or on your own. Get a gratitude journal for the kids that they can decorate themselves. Once in a while, have everyone write a letter to thank someone who did something meaningful. You can even write a letter to a former teacher or a person whom you have always wanted to thank. Tell the story to your kids. If they are too shy to mail the letters they write, that’s OK. It’s the practice of appreciation that’s important.
  7. Avoid getting angry and telling kids they are being ungrateful. It’s not easy to watch your kids do something that appears spoiled, but shaming kids is not going to make their gratitude grow.

Aliza Pressman, PhD, is an assistant clinical professor in Pediatrics, Division of Behavioral and Developmental Health, at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.