Christine Carter, author of the blog Raising Happiness and the book of the same name (Ballantine Books, $24), says gratitude is an art and it must be taught. That takes time and commitment.
But some say families are so busy that teaching children gratitude gets lost in the daily crunch of commitments to school, work and activities.
“One thing that hinders people is that we have so many distractions these days, and just the busyness of life,” said Jeffrey Froh, an associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University in New York. “You have to slow down and be more mindful and appreciate what is around you.”
Still, it almost sounds too easy. How could finding time to write little notes to yourself or walking in the woods reform a child with a hard-core case of the gimmes?
Froh and Carter both say it can be that simple, but you have to work at making it a habit. Like any other skill, it takes a lot of practice.
“It comes down to making this a priority,” said Froh, who has done extensive research on children and gratitude. “If we want our kids to do well in school, or soccer, we would make sure we practice with them, and study, because those things are valued and important. If we actually valued becoming grateful, it would happen.”
Here are some ways that parents can help their children this holiday season and throughout the year to feel more gratitude and less entitlement.
A gratitude journal — a daily written account of what you appreciate in life — is great, but not everyone wants to sit down every day to pen an ode to their blessings.
Carter suggests turning what interests your child into a gratitude project. Keep a jar of Legos, and every time your child expresses gratitude for something, have her add a Lego to a project and enjoy watching it grow. During the holidays, drape ribbon from doorways and keep a basket with note paper and clothespins nearby. When people visit, have them write something they’re grateful for on a sheet of paper and pin it to the “garland.” Or have your child make pictures or notes about things he is grateful for, and display them on the refrigerator.
Having your child volunteer at a shelter or food pantry or other charitable organization is a good way to expose him to the idea of scarcity without actually depriving him, Carter said.
Sharon Vermont, a pediatrician and mother of two girls in St. Louis, embarked on a gratitude project two years ago after one of her daughters threw a tantrum in an ice cream store.
She told her girls that they would not eat in any restaurants or eat take-out food until they had given a bag of nonperishable food to 30 strangers and heard their life stories. The project took several months, she said, and the girls spoke with firefighters, a single parent with no health insurance whose child had been diagnosed with cancer and survivors of the war in Bosnia, among others.