One of the most robust findings in the field of positive psychology is on the benefits of gratitude. It helps stave off depression, evokes positive emotions in others, and increases well-being.

The holidays and new year are great times to help children cultivate feelings of thankfulness. Here are five habits to help your children focus on the positives in their lives.

1. Giving Thanks: Sharing a meal is one thing that many people like best about the holidays. In many religious traditions, this is a time to give thanks. Extend that tradition by making space to share feelings of gratitude with each other. In our home, we begin holiday meals by going around the table and sharing something we are grateful for. It can be anything: health insurance, a car that started, a favorite ice cream, or the fact that the turkey didn’t burn toooo badly. It need not be serious — and can be funny. But it can also be touching, as we take a moment to share something we truly care about. I rarely remember what people say. I always remember holding hands, looking around the table, and being grateful that we are together.

2. New Year’s Eve Thank-You Notes: Few people readily dash off thank-you notes with style and panache. It’s certainly something I have never managed to get my kids to do willingly. Instead of handing your child an ultimatum and a stamp, try something new this year: the thank-you note soiree. Children often want to stay up late — or at least hang out and nosh — on New Year’s Eve. Help fill some of that time by hosting a thank-you-note-writing party.




The requirements are simple:

  • Cards or paper and envelopes
  • Some nice pens or colorful markers, pencils, and crayons
  • Stickers or cartoons can add fun and color
  • Don’t forget the stamps!

Have everyone — adults too! — dash off their thank you’s. This is a skill that will serve them well in life and gets easier with practice. Notes DON’T have to be stodgy, and they don’t have to be long. That’s why I like cards — you can fill them in a sentence or three. Notes DO have to include a thank you for at least the thoughtfulness of the gift, if not for the gift itself. (I remember struggling to find the words to thank my husband’s grandmother for an antique galvanized chamber pot she sent us.) Having kids draw or decorate with stickers or add their favorite cartoon can make notes more interesting to produce for the kids and more fun for the recipient.

This is also a good time to teach your kids which side of an envelope a stamp goes on and make sure they know their zip code (my kids seem to have missed those lessons somewhere). This is NOT a time to scold them about their handwriting. Writing notes can be an exercise in gratitude for you too: Be grateful and happy they are DONE! And don’t forget to put them in the mail on your New Year’s Day walk.

Tip: Any store that sells scrapbooking supplies (including big retailers like Target and Walmart, as well as specialty craft supply houses) will have inexpensive paper, a huge selection of stickers, and some nifty little items that are fun to add to notes. Letting the kids pick their tools will make them more willing participants. Save leftovers for next year — they never go bad.

3. Gratitude Reflection: At our annual department retreat last year, I began by asking people to write for just a minute about the things they loved best about our department. Everybody talked about the people. We often nag kids to write thank-you notes for the things they’ve been given. Some of the most meaningful notes I’ve ever received are notes of thanks for small acts of kindness.

Writing a note reminds us of past kindness from others. Sending on those thanks to others is an act of kindness unto itself.




4. The Gratitude Journal: I don’t keep a gratitude journal, but a habit I’ve tried to foster in myself is to make an end-of-year list of things that have gone well and why they worked.

On a daily basis, keeping a gratitude journal can be a great habit to foster in your children. This could be a formal part of whole journaling system. Many kids — especially adolescents — will appreciate a journal and nice pen to write down their private thoughts in. My own teen journals are just little spiral-bound notebooks. But gifting a special journal can get them started on their new year.

For busy kids, it may be a lot easier to build gratitude into things they already have going on in their day. Most kids keep an assignment book. Jotting a couple of words about things that went well that day — or at least better than expected — helps build the habit of looking for the good. When you check their homework, ask them to just write down three things they’re grateful for that day.

5. Ask About the Good: When my son was going to school in severe pain, his days could be nightmarish. But every single day, he came home and told me something that had made him laugh or a good conversation he’d have or something interesting he had learned. Focusing on those positives were like breadcrumbs that would help lead him out of the woods and keep him moving forward.

Asking children about something funny that happened, something that made them feel good, or the nicest thing they did for someone that day can lead to better and more informative after-school chats than a generic query («What happened at school?»). Talking about those good things, you’ll probably also hear about the bad. We are grateful for an extension on a paper we’ve stressed about. We are thankful for someone who helped us pick up our books after they’ve been dropped. Asking about the good can help us hear about the bad. But keeping our kids’ eyes on what’s working helps them to make those good things happen more often.

And that’s the point. Gratitude is not about blindly ignoring the bad, the ugly, or the cruel. It is certainly not fostering the belief that everything that happens is for the best. It IS about fostering the habit of noticing that there are stars in the night. A good thing to remember in this darkest part of the year.

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