“G” is for Gratitude: What I Wish I Knew When I Was Younger
By Amanda Schmid
Last week on our favorite turkey-filled holiday, I decided to ditch the usual feasting and yummy indulgences I usually partake in on this day with friends, and ventured to Downtown Los Angeles to volunteer. I helped serve a Thanksgiving meal that fed thousands of people who were unable to provide such a feast for their families. The event was massive and quite an eye-opener for me. What struck me the most was the pure happiness of the children that were present that day. I started thinking about my own problems that I had been dwelling on recently, and began reprimanding myself for not being thankful enough for the comforts I possess such as a warm apartment, a bed with a squishy egg crate mattress topper to sleep on, and delicious food to eat every single day.
After leaving the event, I spent some time thinking about what this holiday is suppose to represent: gratitude. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D, is one of the world’s leading scientific experts on gratitude, and runs the Youth Gratitude Project at UC Berkeley. His research tells us that gratitude is not only essential to our mental health, but actually strengthens our physical health as well and can add years on to our lifespan. Being grateful for the bad times in addition to the good ones can help us to create happiness, handle crisis, alleviate stress, and prevent depression. I personally wish that I could have learned some of these coping tactics when I was younger, and I realize now how it is just as important to teach children skills such as these as it is to teach spelling and mathematics.
According to Emmons, children who practice being grateful will be involved in 13% fewer fights, will be 20% more likely to achieve higher grades, and ten times less likely to start smoking cigarettes at a young age. It has taken me awhile to really understand that the hard times in life help us to identify, understand, and appreciate the incredible times. I think we could set up the next generation of youth for a lifetime of success by teaching them to grasp this concept at a young age.
There are several ways you can begin to practice gratitude with your little ones. I have a few ideas to share, but feel free to expand and get creative, and let me know what you come up with! Help them to start a journal. I prefer old school notebooks and gel pens, but in the event your children are already internet savvy, you could create a family blog. Every day, encourage your children to record one thing in their journal they feel grateful for, even if it is as simple as the experience of enjoying a car ride to school with a parent, or indulging with their favorite cookie after dinner (and how that much more magical it seems to taste when you find a quiet corner to eat it in alone). I don’t think it’s ever too early to start teaching a child how magnificent and peaceful a hot shower can truly be (one of my personal favorites). Writing down these simple moments is a great exercise that helps us to individually acknowledge precious elements of our lives that we ordinarily might allow to slip by without the recognition they deserve. The next time your family members partake in said activity, I guarantee they will be much more likely to appreciate it in the moment, and therefore able to fully enjoy the warm and fuzzy feelings that will accompany it. Eventually, being able to flip through the pages in your journals and read all of these entries at once will be an immensely satisfying activity that all of you will appreciate.
Another practice that I wish I had learned at a younger age is meditation. Meditation can be extremely beneficial when exploring feeling grateful for your life. Most likely kids will only be fascinated with this activity for a couple of minutes, but take advantage of their attention span while you can. Spend some time with them when they are at their most relaxed, whether it is in the morning upon waking, or right before bedtime. Instruct them to simply breathe and think about something in their life that makes them feel lucky. It does the mind wonders, I promise.
I know hectic work and school schedules make this easier said than done, but volunteering is a great way to teach gratitude. If you can find spare time to donate to someone in need, I highly recommend it. It can benefit your own family, and of course the people you are helping. Reading to children or serving food at a soup kitchen can open the eyes of your own tots to how blessed they may actually be.
Last, but not least, please always show gratitude for your own life. Kids are imitators, and seeing their role model as a shining example of someone who feels full and in love with their life can teach a million lessons. Instead of reacting with anger and sadness in negative situations, show your children that these are normal occurrences in life that are unavoidable, and that the good times thankfully make up for these rotten ones. Teach them that by picturing their loved ones and the things they feel grateful for, they can persevere through the annoyances and tribulations of life with more ease.
When I think back about those children at the feast, I feel happy for them. I wish for them to move forward in life and remember these times, and how if they were happy and thankful for a simple meal, they can indeed be grateful for the rest of their story that has yet to be written. While yes, it is important to learn addition and subtraction, I think it is even more imperative we teach kids these valuable lessons. Advise your offspring that everything good that happens is great, and everything bad that happens is a good lesson or story. So in the end, everything is good.
For further tips and ideas about how to address your child’s feelings visit blog.wellbabycenter.org