Having spent much of the first half of my life being a kid, and the entire second half surrounded by them, there is one thing I know for sure. Nothing is more crippling to the growth and development of young people than the inability to recognize what is good in their lives.
The biggest difference between people who are generally happy and people who are generally not, is this: Happy people recognize, focus on, think about, talk about and attribute value to what is good in their lives most of the time. Unhappy people don’t. It really is that simple.
Understanding this is critical for educators, counselors and parents who aim to raise happy, well adjusted children and young adults. I can’t count the number of times through the years that I’ve heard parents and teachers complain about how much young people take for granted. Comments like, “She’s never satisfied”, “It’s never enough,”He doesn’t know how good he’s got it” and “They don’t appreciate anything” are all too common and express adults’ frustration in dealing with a young mindset that is too often accepted as inevitable.
Our frustration with the ungrateful or entitled behavior kids sometimes bring into our classrooms or homes sometimes brings us to try and “force it out of ’em!”. We nag and lecture, and sometimes, even sulk. We use disabling prompts, like “What do you say?”, or outright instruction: “Say ‘thank you'” or even a sarcastic “You’re welcome” unprecedented by thanks.
But these strategies disempower young people and undermine our true objective: to help them become gracious, considerate and thoughtful human beings. We want our kids to genuinely feel and express appreciation for the happy moments, meaningful experiences and the kindnesses shown to them by others. We want them to experience the peace and joy that comes with being truly thankful.
The following list offers my favorite strategies for teaching gratitude. I’ve put each of these into practice with kids of all ages (and even the occasional adult), always with great success and am so very thankful to be able to share them with you!
Top Ten for Teaching Gratitude
- Model the behavior you wish to see. Challenge yourself to express your sincere appreciation for everything from good customer service, to courteous or helpful behavior, from good quality of work, to “the beautiful weather we’re having”. Express YOUR feelings and appreciation to allow young people to see the world through your grateful eyes.
- Make children and young people the receiver of appreciation. Find things they’ve done to appreciate and offer thanks sincerely. Make eye contact. Let them hear the pleasure in your voice, let them see the smile on your face and warmth in your eyes. Shake their hands or give a hug (whichever is appropriate to your role). Let them bask in the feeling of being appreciated.
- Involve them in activities where they can earn the appreciation of others. We sometimes forget that making kids the “helper” makes them feel strong, and strong is good. Engage them in service activities. Even very small children can be enlisted to help in some way. Be sure to process these experiences with them. Ask if they feel their efforts were appreciated and encourage them to talk about what made them feel that way.
- Get them to co-sign. “Wasn’t that fun!”, “What a treat! Aren’t we lucky?”, “That was so kind of her, don’t you think?”. Your enthusiasm will be catching and this practice takes modeling a step further and gets them engaged. You are also asking for their opinion, which young people love.
- Ask, don’t tell. When young people are clearly enjoying their meal, ask if it’s good. Then ask who made it for them. Follow with “Did you remember to (or should we) thank mom for making you such a terrific dinner?”
- Create routines that promote appreciation. Ask “What is the best thing that happened today?”, create a community appreciation bulletin board or newsletter or set aside time in the classroom or assembly when students can publicly express appreciation for each other and the adults in their lives.
- Provide a context that helps them see that they are fortunate without having to be told. Then challenge them to share their thoughts. This link: http://www.kanji.org/kanji/jack/personal/100peop.htm takes you to a piece of writing that I remember hearing at an assembly when I was 14 years old. It describes the state of the world if we were to reduce it to a Global Village of just 100 people. I recently shared it with a friend who grew up in another part of the country and she too remembered reading this when she was very young. Sharing literature, movies, songs, and photographs are all great ways to help young people to broaden their context and adjust their priorities.
- Point out how happy someone looks when being thanked and talk about how much more people enjoy being around people who are gracious and grateful.
- Thank them when they thank you! Explain how much it means to you and to others when someone expresses appreciation.
- Share your efforts! Enlist the support of others in teaching gratitude and express your appreciation for it! Remember that gratitude is contagious and pass it on.
Thanks for reading!