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14 Practical Ways to Instill Gratitude in Our Children

As children when we were growing up, we just had gratitude because our experiences, possessions and opportunities were limited. So in a world of abundant opportunity and access to "stuff," how do we instill this sense of gratitude in our children?
08/25/2015 04:08pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Black mother and daughter holding bouquet of flowers

We are parenting our children in a totally different era to the one we grew up in.

There is more "stuff" now than we ever had. There is more luxury now than we ever saw. There is more opportunity to experience life and we are lucky enough to embrace it with our kids. But at what cost?

I grew up on a sheep farm in the middle of the countryside with my two brothers. Our nearest town had a population of 16 people with just as many dogs and I rode on a bus for an hour each way to get to school (until I went to boarding school at the age of 14). Life was pretty simple.

We had a car and when we got our new (secondhand) car it had heating -- a complete luxury. We had a roof over our heads and it was comfortable. My main toy was a doll with broken legs and I loved her. We went out for dinner to the local kebab shop once in a blue moon and it was a super treat. I got my first bike for my 5th birthday that wasn't a "hand-me-down" and it had the number 4 painted on a black sign between the handlebars.

We ate lollies, chips and lemonade at birthday parties and on Christmas day. We read books. We had sleepovers a lot (not play dates). We had to wait until birthdays or Christmas to get what we wanted. We went to the local pool for entertainment for hours and hours on end with all the other families and sometimes we were allowed to buy a 20 c ice-block at the end.

We only lived in three houses for the whole of my childhood and while they were nothing fancy -- they were home. I visited the city a handful of times. We ate pretty well and lived a simple life, but we were grateful for the little we received.

In a complete juxtaposition, my children are living in a different world -- seemingly, a land of opportunity and abundance. It is a different era. It is not that we have more money than our parents had, but certainly more opportunities in a heavily globalized and connected world.

By the age of 5, 3 and 1, our children had been to Disneyland and Disneyworld. They have flown on many planes, lived overseas and been on some great holidays. Sometimes our Sunday mornings consist of kayaking across the harbor to get our morning coffee and a paper with the kids. They all have a bike and usually get a new one when the old one wears out so we can continue with our family bike rides (admittedly, we get them from the secondhand bike shop).

They have a playroom with enough toys for 16 children. We have takeout on average once a week because it is available and easy. They have the opportunity to play a musical instrument, do a sport they love and play at the park with friends often. They have been to the Netball World Cup, the Australian and Washington DC Ballet, brilliant museums, to the White House, to countless musicals and have had the opportunity to meet footballers, politicians, actors and even baseball players.

It's a lovely life for a child; however, one of my biggest daily challenges in parenting my children is knowing how to instill a sense of gratitude in this world of opportunity and "stuff."

As children when we were growing up, we just had gratitude because our experiences, possessions and opportunities were limited. So in a world of abundant opportunity and access to "stuff," how do we instill this sense of gratitude in our children?

The definition of gratitude is the quality of being thankful and a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. It is not just having good manners and saying thank you, it runs deeper. It is a real intention of acknowledging that what you have received is treasured and appreciated.

The opposite of gratitude is entitlement and it is constantly said that we are living through the "age of entitlement," where our teenagers and young adults expect everything handed to them on a silver platter.

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Why do we even want to raise grateful kids?

According to gratitude expert, Robert Emmons when things are going well, gratitude allows us to celebrate and magnify the goodness. However, when things are going badly, this is when gratitude really kicks in.

"In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times," said Robert Emmons.

Emmons's research shows that when children, between the ages of 10 to 19, practice gratitude they feel a greater life satisfaction, more positive emotion, have higher levels of optimism and feel better about life and school. More importantly, it helps our children build resilience -- the skill most needed to bounce back from adverse situations or stress.

So how do we instill a sense of gratitude in our children? Here are 14 practical ways....

1. Find the favorite part of the day. -- When you are all together as a family, usually at the dinner table at night, go around the table and ask, "What is your favorite part of the day?" This allows your children to look for the positives in their day, rather than the negatives. As they get older, you can change this to, "What are you grateful for?"

2. Keep a gratitude jar. -- At some stage each day, have your children write down or draw what they are grateful for. Put it in the jar each day and at the end of the month or end of the year or in a particularly rocky time, pull them out to read as a family.

3. Don't buy everything your children ask for. -- Even is you can afford it, don't buy your children what they ask for always. Get them to save their own money or wait until a birthday. This teaches delayed gratification and allows your child to be more grateful for what they receive.

4. Embrace the "gratitude teachable moments." -- These are the moments when you can remind your child how they can be grateful (not why they should!). It might be when you see a rainbow together or have a spontaneous play date -- remind them to be grateful for the moment they have shared and the beauty they saw or enjoyment they had.

5. Be a role model for gratitude. -- Show your own gratitude for what you receive and talk to your children about it. Show that it is often more important to give, rather than receive.

6. Make "thank you" a sincere word, not just a learned word. -- From the age of 10 months, we can teach our children to say 'ta' and get into the habit of manners. However from the age of 3 or 4 onwards, talk to your children about what 'thank you' actually means and why they are saying it.

7. Show your kids how other people live. -- A family who lives a comfortable life in the eastern suburbs of Sydney takes their children on holidays with the intention to show them how other people live. When they went to India and Thailand they visited orphanages and slums to see it firsthand. However, you can show your kids closer to home. Visit a homeless shelter or a school that is in a poorer area or visit a rural or indigenous community. Meet the families or children and then look for the teachable moments.

8. Don't go overboard in giving presents. -- In a world full of "stuff," it is easy to get to a birthday or Christmas and overload our children with presents. Our children don't need lots of presents to have a special time on these days and they will often only play with a few things and leave the other toys.

9. Open the card before the present. -- It is a strict rule in our family that when you receive a present, you always open the card first. Then it becomes more about who is giving the present, rather than what you are receiving.

10. Send a thank you card to a teacher or coach. -- When the season ends or the school year is over or just because, have your children write a thank you note to their teacher or a coach with reasons why they are grateful for what that person has done for them.

11. Show love with "presence, not presents." -- The commodity of "time" is the most precious thing you can give your children. They don't need lots of stuff and presents. If you go away, don't come back with presents, come back with an hour of cuddles or an hour of talking.

Graham Long, a pastor from the Wayside Chapel, tells a great story of how he would always bring a sweetie or small gift home from work each night for his small son. This one night he had had a busy day and forgot the gift. His son riffled through his pockets and found nothing. His son had a huge tantrum and all he had to offer was love.

12. Keep a gratitude journal together (or a count your blessings journal). -- From the age of about 10, you and your child or children could keep a Gratitude Journal together. Each night, write down 3 things you are grateful for from the day and talk about it.

13. Encourage your kids to help out without being asked. -- If you encourage your kids to see something around the house and help out with it, without being asked, this will become a habit to cultivate in society when they are older.

14. Teach the difference between "necessity" and a "luxury." -- This is the same as teaching our children the difference between a "need" and a "want." When you are next in the supermarket with your children and they start asking for different items to put in the trolley -- classify the item as a 'need' or a 'want' and discuss how the want will enhance their day.

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Anna is a parent educator, school teacher and mum. Find her on Facebook here.