4 steps to raising grateful kids
I work with a lot of unhappy kids, many of them grappling with tough situations---sexual abuse, domestic violence, or divorce. I try to help kids not to be victims of their past but rather take control of their lives. I like the quote that you should “...never put the keys to your happiness in someone else’s pocket.” Gratitude training is not only useful for these kids but is a powerful parenting technique to help raise happy children.
I like the four-step model used in the “Raising Grateful Children” project at the University of North Carolina.
- Notice. Wonderful things happen to us every day, but we often give them little attention. Think about a few nice things that happened to you today. Our lives are defined by daily acts of kindness and caring. Focusing on such experiences is this first step in developing a more grateful lifestyle. This can be difficult for kids, many of whom are overwhelmed by past hurts. You can’t write a new chapter in your life if you remain consumed by yesterday’s tragedies. I ask youngsters to write down something good every day as a way to increase their mindfulness of positive experiences.
- Think. We often don’t notice life’s gifts because we expect them and feel entitled to a certain lifestyle. There is no reason to feel grateful for something that you feel is owed to you. One youngster told me how angry he was at his divorcing parents because it meant that they would no longer both attend his sporting events. Regardless of whether that was true, why should any child have such extraordinary unrealistic expectations? In this phase of therapy, I work to diminish kids’ expectations and entitlements.
- Feel. With more realistic expectations and a greater focus on positive events, kids can fully appreciate their lives. They reflect less upon their past pains. They become less whiny and pessimistic, and more thankful and hopeful. With these changes in their thoughts and feelings, they advance to the final step in this process.
- Do. It's critical to align what you do with how you think and feel. I ask kids to keep a journal of some grateful act they do every day. This may involve saying a kind word to a classmate or helping out at home. I combine this with the “no complaints” rule where I help kids develop the self-control to avoid whining about things they don’t like.
You can do these same things with your children to help raise happy kids—manage expectations, correct a sense of entitlement, and establish family traditions where acts of gratitude and kindness are routine.