When the holidays come around, we’re all experts at teaching our kids to be grateful. We make our kids write thank-you notes for their grandparents and list off what they appreciate before a Thanksgiving Feast. Then we drop all of those habits the second the holidays are over.
But teaching a child to be grateful might be the best thing we can do for them. We all want our kids to grow up happy, but happiness isn’t something we can buy them or teach them to win. It comes from how they see the world and whether they focus on all the bad in their lives or on the good.
A positive attitude is one of the most valuable gifts a parent can give their children. Not only will it make it them happier, but studies suggest it’ll even make them more successful. Here are some small habits we can practice every day that will help our kids see the good all around them.
Every night before my son goes to bed, I make him write his favorite part of the day on a blackboard we keep in his room. Before he goes to sleep, he has to remember everything he did and think about what made him happy, and it’s worked wonders for making him more grateful.
Now that he’s in the habit of doing it, our son automatically starts listing off things he appreciates before he goes to sleep. It’s not just him; a study on a similar idea found that kids became happier and more optimistic after just three weeks of writing down what they’re grateful for.
This practice also improves spelling, handwriting, and phonetics, especially in younger children. My son is four years old but he can already write some of the things that regularly make the board, like “playing with toys” and “playing outside,” without any help. Young kids can get a head-start on sounding out words and learn to focus on what’s good in life in the process.
When children don’t have to do anything, they take everything for granted. If food simply appears on their table, they’ll accept that it’s something they’re owed. If their rooms magically become clean, they’ll accept that cleaning is not their responsibility.
Getting kids involved in every part of what makes life possible is one of the best ways to teach them to appreciate it. Get kids to help make the meals and help clean the house. They’ll begin to understand the work that goes into all these things and start appreciating that it’s been done.
We saw a huge change when our son started cooking, which he did when he was three years old. Before, he’d cry about what was on his plate and complain if food took more than a minute to cook. When we let him make rice in the rice cooker and put together some peanut butter sandwiches, he started to appreciate what was involved. Now he gushes over the meals we make and begs for the chance to cook for us.
If you’re religious, there’s a chance you already spend a few seconds before every meal listing off everything you’re grateful for. But even if you’re not, there’s no reason why you can’t.
Sitting down before a meal and listing off some of the things you’re grateful for is a great habit, whether you’re religious or not. Any family with a belief system can work a mini-Thanksgiving into their meal habits, and it’s worth it. Saying grace makes people more grateful and helps them appreciate what they have.
There are a few parts that make it work, and one of the big ones is being thankful for food. The old ritual has some great points coded into it, like making people acknowledge that they’re lucky to have food and shelter. It gets kids in the habit of understanding how much they have and appreciating your work for making it happen.
You can tell your kids what to do, but they also see your actions. What you do affects them a lot more than what you say.
There’s a way my wife and I talked before we got married. I would rely on self-deprecating jokes – pokes at my growing belly and at my natural clumsiness. My wife would point out the things she wanted to improve, ever pushing herself toward her ambitions. For us, it wasn’t harmful, it was how we talked. It was a part of our dynamic and who we were. But when we saw it reflected in our child, we realized the effect it was really having.
Our son began to mimick us. He’d tease men the way I teased myself, poking at their bellies and laughing when someone stumbled. He’d complain about the things he’d heard his mother talk about changing, even by collapsing onto the ground.
When we started being more careful with what we said around him, his whole attitude changed. We made it a point to comment on the beauty of the day or a fun activity. We praised each other whenever we worked hard, and he started copying it.
Now, every time he sees someone draw a picture or sing a song, he rushes over to tell them how great they did. He points out beautiful days and when people do nice things for him, because it’s what he’s seen us do.
And that, after all, is the most important part – what your kids see. When our kids see us make self-deprecating jokes and complain about every little frustration, they copy that attitude. But when they see us appreciating the little parts of life, they learn to appreciate life too – and they get to spend the rest of their lives with that positive attitude.