Daily Thanksgiving: A Recipe for a Happy Family
Giving thanks seems like a simple idea, tossed freely about by habit. We teach children to thank their friends for sharing toys, we thank co-workers for helping with a task, and we squeal our thanks when opening gifts.
But when given sincerely and contemplated daily, those two little words have the power to change a household. Recent research reveals that a regular dose of gratitude can improve a child’s self-esteem, reduce family stress and increase overall optimism for everyone. In short, saying “thank you” can put everyone in a good mood!
A positive change for all ages
Jeffrey Froh, assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University, studied the effect of grateful thinking on middle school students. His research shows that middle school students who counted their blessings regularly reported higher levels of gratitude, optimism and life satisfaction. And, as an added bonus, these students increased their pleasure with school.
According to Froh, children as young as 7 years old may grasp the concept of gratitude. “As children become less egocentric and enter early adolescence, the ability to empathize strengthens,” he explains.
But it is not just children who benefit from being thankful. In an experiment involving those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis, researchers found that adult participants reported feeling better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the upcoming week when compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events. The same study revealed that in the span of just two months, people who exercised gratitude were more likely to make progress toward personal goals, including academic and health-based goals, when compared to others.
When working with adults recovering from addiction at both Promises and the Betty Ford Center, Dr. Laura Trice has noted the relationship between gratitude and positive thinking. “There is a saying in the recovery setting that 95 percent of the problem is negative thinking. The only remedy for that is gratitude,” says the counselor, who also speaks about gratitude. “It strengthens the part of the brain that sees what is right and good.”
Steps to help your children
One of the most important ways to help children feel grateful is to help them recognize the efforts of others. “Recognizing others’ behaviors as intentional is the core thought behind generating gratitude,” Froh explains, adding, “So if a friend helps with homework, pitching a ball, perfecting a dance move or getting over a breakup, I think the parent should emphasize that the friend did not have to go above and beyond like this.”
To get your children started on the path to grateful thinking, both Froh and Trice offer these easy actions:
Ask everyone to share one thing they are grateful for at the dinner table each night. Trice notes that this is a simple act and can involve the entire family.
Occasionally, take a minute to ask for thanks. “Maybe a mom wants her kids to thank her for dinner or clear the dishes as their way of saying ‘thank you.’ Maybe a dad wants to be thanked for planning a vacation. Maybe the child wants his parents to say ‘thank you’ for remembering to take the dog for a walk,” Trice says. Acknowledging these sometimes overlooked accomplishments can help family members feel appreciated and generate an attitude of gratitude.
Keep a gratitude journal. Trice suggests each member of the family keep a private journal in which each writes two or three gratitudes at bedtime.
Send thank-you notes. Make a habit of writing thank-you cards for relatives, friends, teachers and coaches. If your child is too young to write a card, consider having her draw a picture for the recipient.
Take time for a gratitude visit. “This is when the kids think of someone who did something kind for them, write them a thank-you letter and read it to them face to face,” Froh explains.
Recognize your child’s achievements. As a child makes progress toward a goal, note the achievement. “If the kid does not do as well as they wanted to in x, y or z, remind them how far they’ve come,” Froh says, noting that progress toward a goal is something to be grateful for.
Identify the people who help your child. “Our individualistic culture instills in us a sense of, ‘I did this on my own.’ That’s hogwash! Interdependence is integral for success. So, if your kid wins the spelling bee, help him list all of those who helped along the way. Grateful people … recognize the contributions of others responsible for specific achievements,” Froh says.
Steps for parents and caregivers
Just as important as teaching children these habits of gratitude is exercising them ourselves. “I feel that children are better imitators than listeners, so parents showing and demonstrating thankfulness is very important. A husband appreciating his wife for what she does during the day shows that he values her. A wife appreciating her husband for his contributions shows the children that she respects his efforts,” Trice stresses, adding, “The impact of children seeing their parents appreciate one another, I would think, is providing them a sense of well-being.”
Froh agrees, saying that modeling grateful behavior and using grateful language are two ways we lead our children by example. He also stresses the importance of watching for grateful behavior in our children and identifying it.
As parents, we have the power to lead our family on a healthy and happy path with two simple words. It is a gift we give ourselves. And it is worth a hearty, “Thank you!”
Mary Jo Kurtz is a freelance writer whose research and essays have appeared in more than 70 regional and national publications. She and her husband, Gary, have two sons, Sam, 19, and Joey, 8.