Not long ago, I hosted a Halloween-themed playdate for my daughter's kindergarten classmates - all seventeen of them. Wanting to make it a fun afternoon, I spent the day before running around getting juice boxes, kid-friendly snacks, craft supplies and ghost plates and napkins. When the last pumpkin was decorated and the kids out the door, I prompted my daughter, "So what do you want to say about your party?" Her response: "Thank you. I just wish you'd gotten the pretzel nuggets instead of the twists." Huh? After all that, the kid was quibbling about nuggets? I realized that though I've drummed it into her to always say thank you, maybe I hadn't taught her enough about what it means to truly be grateful, a quality that goes deeper than just uttering an obligatory "thanks."
"Gratitude is really an attitude of appreciation and thankfulness for the kindnesses and benefits you receive," says Andrea Reiser, a mother of four and coauthor, with her husband David Reiser, of Letters from Home: A Wake-Up Call for Success & Wealth (Wiley, 2010). And this attitude, according to research, can make for a happier kid (and later teen and adult) and more harmony on the homefront Who couldn't use more of that?
Here's how to cultivate an attitude of gratitude in your kids:
1. Talk about your blessings. Each day, encourage kids to name a couple of things for which they're thankful. It can be anything -- a good grade, a friend who shared her snack or a favorite toy. "You can do this in the morning, at the dinner table or as part of your bedtime routine," says Andrea. "It really opens kids' eyes and they start looking for moments to appreciate throughout the day."
2. Don't go overboard on material things. With birthdays, holidays and grandparents who take their "spoiling the grandkids" job very seriously, kids are inundated with more stuff than they can use - or appreciate. Reiser's solution: Focus on experiences rather than things. The next time Grandma asks for gift ideas, suggest show tickets or a pass to the children's museum. If you want a memento of an outing, choose a CD with the show tunes you heard or a photo album to fill with pictures of your day.
3. Resurrect the dying art of thank-you note writing. "Keep a stack of thank-you cards on hand and have your child use them," recommends Andrea. "Young children can sign their names and older kids can compose and write the note." Besides acknowledging the obvious like birthday and holiday gifts, encourage kids to share their thanks for kind deeds. "If your child had a great time at a play date, have her send the host a thank-you note, or she can write one to thank her babysitter for doing something especially nice," says Andrea. "Doing this helps kids recognize that there's something to be appreciated."
4. Be a model of gratitude. "Say 'thank you' often and sincerely," suggests Andrea. As you or your child's caregiver go about the day, remember to express gratitude to people who help you, from the crossing guard who gets you safely across the street to the barista who whips up your latte. "Modeling politeness and respect is a great way to encourage those qualities in kids," notes Andrea.
5. Do good as a family. "When kids give their time and energy to help others, they'll be less likely to take things like health, home and family for granted," says Andrea. Set aside some time - yes, it's tough to find a spare moment but so worth it - to help out an elderly neighbor or participate in a community charity event. Helping others is a sure-fire way to get everyone in a more grateful state of mind.