As parents, we teach our kids to say “please” and “thank you” from the time they first start to talk. And while these gestures of politeness and good manners are important, so too is diving a little deeper into what it really means to be thankful.
It’s an on-going lesson that’s especially top of mind this time of year, with the holidays close at hand.
Numerous studies in recent years point to the very real mental, physical and social benefits of practicing gratitude within our daily lives. Turns out, being thankful is a powerful thing.
One study by researchers at University of California-Davis and the University of Miami showed that participants who kept a daily gratitude journal reported feeling happier and more optimistic about their lives in just 10 weeks.
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Surprisingly, these individuals exercised more and even reported fewer visits to the doctor than another participant group, which had been asked instead to journal about events that had been irritating or disappointing.
Another study from the University of Pennsylvania asked participants to write a letter to someone in their lives who had shown them kindness, but who had never been properly thanked. The participants showed a large surge in their own happiness scores after delivering their letters.
And even here locally, University of Kentucky psychology professor Nathan Dewall has published research noting a relationship between gratitude and a reduction in aggressive behaviors.
Other studies have shown that practicing gratitude leads to pro-social behaviors: including a greater willingness to volunteer and generally lend a hand to those around us.
Essentially, experts in the field of gratitude agree: Focusing on what we have in our lives to be thankful for actually can lead to more to be thankful for — better health, better relationships and a better outlook on life.
So, how do we apply all this to our kids?
Start by asking them to share what they are thankful for each day. This could easily become part of your family’s routine at the dinner table or just before bed as you’re tucking them in.
Ask each child to name three things that happened that day that they are thankful for. (Of course, be open to reports of “bad” news too, in order to talk about how things could be better on that front tomorrow.)
For children old enough to write, encourage them to start keeping a daily or weekly gratitude journal of their own, or have them write a thank you note to someone special in their life.
Finally, push back on the frantic rush to Christmas and other holidays and pause to try to really celebrate the meaning behind this special season of thankfulness. There are so many fun seasonal crafts that can make this easy to do as a whole-family activity.
For instance, every Thanksgiving since my kids were tiny, my family has hung a large homemade poster-board turkey on the doorway to our kitchen.
Each night in November, my three sons, my husband and I add a new feather to his tail, on which we’ve written one thing we are thankful for.
By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, we have a gorgeously plumed paper bird — and a beautiful reminder of just how many things we do have to be thankful for all year through.