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Guest Post: Kids and Gratitude

Steph writes from a houseful of boys, and has been practicing gratitude with her family for many years.

Not too long ago, I heard a story of a chiropractor who went on a mission trip to a third world country. He handed a new pair of underwear to a 5-year-old boy. The boy took the underwear, hugged them tightly and looked at the chiropractor with tears flowing own his face, thanking him so much for his gift. This child had never owned a new pair of underwear. I don’t know that there is any gift I could present to one of my kids that would elicit such gratitude.

I think it’s pretty normal for kids in our society these days to have a basic attitude of ingratitude in their lives. I don’t know about you, but it’s not rare in our house to tell our kids they need to be way more grateful for all they have.

We all want our kids to be happy and experience all the joys of life that they can. I totally get that. The problem is, it often seems like the more they get, the less grateful they are. One of our boys has been privileged enough to have an exceptional summer this year. He got to go visit his best buddy out of state for a couple weeks all by himself, complete with a plane ride. He spent most of his time at home out with his friends, experiencing new freedoms he’s never had since he’s getting a bit older. Right now as I’m writing this, he’s out riding 4 wheelers in the mountains, something many kids will never get to experience. I would have thought he could see how much fun he’s had and be really appreciative for all of this abundant blessings. Wrong…. While he realizes it’s really cool he’s been able to do a lot, and he is thankful, it seems like it’s never enough. There’s a lot of grumbling when he isn’t constantly entertained with fun things to do or friends to hang out with.

We adults get like this too. It seems like the more we have, the more we want. What does it take to just be happy??

Here’s the thing… happiness has nothing to do with having more or doing more, just like unhappiness has nothing to do with feeling like you don’t have enough. This is a battle we all fight, so how can we teach our kids (and ourselves) to find happiness and joy despite how much we have or don’t have?

We have to create a habit of gratitude. I don’t just mean we need to teach our kids to be grateful for all the things they have. Sure, that’s a big part of it, but a habit of gratitude is even more than that. When we create a gratitude habit, we start to actively look for things to be grateful for, which turns into finding blessings hidden in things that don’t seem like blessings at all.

We just got back from an out of state camping trip that a lot of people would consider a disaster. We ended up stranded on the side of the freeway for over 2 hours on the way there, needing a tow and losing a day of our trip. Then, on the way home, we nearly completely blew our truck engine. This will ultimately be several thousand dollars in repairs. We are left with no vehicle that will fit our family of 8, not to mention the intense financial stress that will come along with figuring out how to pay for the repair at a time we are struggling anyway. By all means, it would be appropriate to be nothing but angry and frustrated about the situation. It is frustrating, there’s no doubt about that. But being mad and fueling the stress doesn’t make the situation any less stressful. It doesn’t add joy, and it certainly doesn’t solve the problem.

I’ve been working for a long time on my own attitude of gratitude and because of that, the minute we pulled to the side of the freeway, I thanked God we had cell service. I saw His protective hand in the whole thing- we were able to reach a family member who lived within an hour, who had the ability to tow our huge truck and not one, but two trailers, to a local town where we could camp for the night. On the way home, when we lost the engine, we made it to within 30 min. of home before we couldn’t go any further. There were a lot of other small miracles hidden inside all of this too.

Gratitude is a choice. It’s a choice that leads to much more joy and happiness. Gratitude is the antidote to frustration. The best thing you can do when you feel frustrated or angry about anything is to start actively looking for gratitude in the situation. The habit will be created and strengthened each time you do it. This isn’t some flowery suggestion either. There’s science to back this up. Being grateful actually changes your brain. The pathways in your brain are changed through creating a habit of gratitude. It’s a cycle- the more you practice gratitude, the more you strengthen those pathways in the brain, which make you naturally recognize the good.

This is one of the most important habits to teach our kids. It will help them to be happier and experience more joy. We’ve all met people who can’t see the good in anything, people who seem like they’re playing to lose at every turn. It seems like bad things always happen to them, but it’s really that they have trained themselves to look for the bad in their lives. I want to teach my kids to always look for what’s good and give thanks for that, even in the midst of great suffering.

One thing we’ve started to do to get the kids in the habit of gratitude is to have each person name two things they are grateful for each night after our family prayers. We all have to choose something different each night. Nothing can be mentioned twice… ever. The first few days of this got us through all the basics- being thankful for family, friends, and all the normal things you’d think of first. It forces the kids to really dig deep. When you realize how lucky you are to have socks, or a shade tree in the yard, you start to realize how many blessings you really have.

A friend recently told me about something that will take this practice to a whole new level. She told me a priest told her to do a Gratitude Rosary for a penance. I’d never heard of that, but when I looked into it, I learned that the practice re-wires the brain to seek gratitude. A Gratitude Rosary consists of listing something to be grateful for on each rosary bead. We are working on replacing our “thankfuls” at prayer time with a Gratitude Rosary we do as a family, each family member doing a bead until we get through the whole thing. Listing a total of over 50 things between us all each day will help us all even more to recognize small things all around us every day.

Sometimes when my 4 year old and 8 year old get mad, they say things like, “it’s not fair”, or “I never get what I want.” Every so often my 4 year old will scream that he hates everything. I started immediately making him list 2 or 3 things he’s grateful for, or good things that happened that day. I’m hoping this practice will reinforce the habit of seeing the good things even when he’s upset.

I think the habit of gratitude is one of the most important habits to form. It’s hard to teach your kids to do it if you don’t model it. The more they see you being joyfully grateful for everything, especially things that look bad on the surface, the more they will start looking for those things too. Sometimes it feels like I’m raising a bunch of ingrates, but at the end of the day when I hear one of my kids says they are grateful for bath towels or grass, or some other random thing we never even think about, I realize that we really are teaching them to notice all the awesome gifts God gives them every day. My hope is that this habit will help them be more resilient draw closer to Him when they encounter suffering and hardship throughout their lives.

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