After months of helping sort through my parents’ belongings, I vowed to simplify and downsize my accumulation of worldly possessions. No drawer, cupboard, closet, and shelf was safe from being culled for items not used or worn in over a year. The amount of stuff I was able to donate, and yet still have everything that is necessary, was embarrassing. It served as a stark reminder of the economy of artificial need that characterizes our society. An economy that depends — indeed, thrives upon — a basic dissatisfaction with one’s circumstances lending to a perpetual state of want, intentionally clouding the distinction between want and need. Driven by the desire to acquire more and more, we have become consumed with making a living at the expense of living a life.
Recent tragic events, that have occurred both nationally and internationally, vividly attest to the precarious nature of life. Attempts to make sense, for our children, and even for ourselves, of the inexplicable devastation, caused by both natural and human forces, seems futile.
But if there is any redeeming value in tragedy, it is that it may force us to recognize all we have been taking for granted. Perhaps with the perspective gained, we can redirect our focus toward adopting gratitude as a lifestyle. Realizing we don’t need more to be thankful for, we simply need to be more thankful, transforms the seasonal practice of giving thanks during the holidays into a way of life.
There are multiple benefits associated with embracing an attitude of gratitude. Individuals characterized as grateful report being happier and less depressed. They are found to be more resilient, have higher self esteem, and more satisfying relationships.
Apparently, focusing on what we do have contributes to an increased sense of contentment and gratefulness that translates into generosity toward others, creating what has been described as a cycle of virtue. On the contrary, when we focus on what we don’t have, we are inclined to become self absorbed and selfish.
We can engage our children in the experience and practice of expressing gratitude by:
• Defining gratitude. Provide a definition of gratitude that is age appropriate for the members of the family. Give examples of when you have felt grateful, how you have expressed gratitude, and of when others have expressed gratitude to you. Describe how you felt. Ask each member of the family to do the same. Have each person share something they appreciate about the member of the family sitting next to them. Have each member share something they are thankful for about the family as a whole. Talk about the benefits of being grateful and the family expectations for demonstrating gratitude.
• Making gratitude tangible. Have each family member find or create a gratitude container to keep in their room. It might be a box, basket, jar, or sock that can be decorated to taste. Encourage them to write on a slip of paper something they are thankful for and what they did to express their gratitude, at least once a day, and add it to their container. Parents or older children can do the writing for younger members. Continuing this practice throughout the year provides each member with a record of their growth in recognizing and expressing gratitude. Make it a Thanksgiving tradition to invite everyone to share their favorite example.
• Writing a note. The art of writing thank-you notes is in danger of extinction. They are being replaced with rapid-fire, impersonal e-mails or, better yet, reduced to a two-character text, “Ty,” possibly accompanied by an emoji. However well-intentioned, nothing replaces the age-old tradition of taking the time to put pen to paper to express appreciation for a gift or act of kindness. Teach children how to write a heartfelt thank-you note. Be sure they include an appropriate salutation, a statement of exactly what they are thankful for, how they felt upon receiving the gift or act of kindness, their appreciation for the giver’s thoughtfulness and generosity, and a genuine closing. Have them deliver the note in person or by snail mail.
• Modeling gratitude. The best teacher is a good practitioner. Verbally express appreciation to your spouse and children. Let them see you add thank-yous to your gratitude container. Put notes of appreciation in their lunch box, leave them on the bathroom mirror or their pillow. Let them see you write and send thank-you notes to others. Write thank-you notes to them from their room (“Thank you for keeping me clean and organized.”), their toys (“Thank you for playing with me, keeping me picked up, and taking care of me.”), their pets (“Thank you for giving me food and water and walking me.”), and from you (“Thank you for bringing so much joy to my life.”). Who doesn’t enjoy receiving a note of thanks?
Whether it’s noticing the natural world, delighting in simple pleasures, or honoring extraordinary acts, gratitude enriches our lives and the lives of those with whom we share it. Happiness is found in choosing to want what we have and realizing the things to be most grateful for aren’t things.
Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman has been married for 29 years and has two sons. She spent 15 years as a family therapist and parent educator and has written extensively on the topic of parenting. To contact her, please e-mail paren