By Monisha Vasa, M.D.
My brain knows that gratitude is important. I know when I am in a state of gratitude–aware of my blessings, small and big, I feel happier and less alone. I feel more connected to the people around me, and my life experiences. I feel in my body a life force greater than myself.
But my heart can find it difficult to stay in a sustained place of gratitude. Rather, it is a practice of reminding myself over and over, to start, over and over. Sometimes that means making lists of things I am grateful for at the end of each day, or at least at the end of the week. Sometimes that means taking a deep, conscious breath before I get out of bed and put my feet on the floor.
I am learning to practice gratitude as an adult. But what would it be like if we could introduce the concept of gratitude to our children when they are young? If gratitude just became a part of their vocabulary, a daily habit like brushing their teeth or eating dinner? If they can experience the magic of gratitude early, perhaps the practice wouldn’t feel so challenging or foreign to them.
Here are five steps to encourage an attitude of gratitude in our children:
- Start with cultivating your own gratitude practice: If we believe in the value of being thankful for all that we are blessed with, our vision starts to shift. We start to see the potential value or gift, even in difficult life experiences. Children tend to follow what we do, even more than what we say. If our children see us connected and thankful, that energy will flow downstream towards them.
- Vocalize gratitude as part of an everyday conversation: Say it out loud. “I really appreciate being able to watch you play in your soccer game.” Or, “We are so fortunate to have and share this meal together.” Making it a point to express our thankfulness out loud can increase our joint awareness. The more we say it loud, the more we feel it in our bones.
- Discover gratitude even for the small things: Children inherently are excited about both little and big things in life. Encourage gratitude for the small, mundane parts of life, not just the exciting Disney World moments. As we adults know, much of life is a day in, day out, routine. The trick is to see the beauty and wonder even in another day at work, or another morning of dropping the kids off to school. Sometimes, on difficult days, all we might be grateful for is another day on this Earth, or the beating of our heart. That is more than enough.
- Encourage downtime for reflection: If we are moving at breakneck speed, it is hard to slow down enough to notice what there is to be grateful for. Noticing is the first step towards counting our blessings. Encourage lots of time for quiet, rest, and reflection. A good time is the end of the day, perhaps before or after a night time story. Ask your children questions about the enjoyable and difficult parts of their day, the “highs” and the “lows.” This can encourage a dialogue about both gratitude, as well as the struggles they are currently experiencing.
- Acknowledge the reality of their emotional experience: Kids, just like adults, won’t feel grateful for everything, all the time. It is a practice for all of us. Sometimes, we need to feel through the anger and sorrow of an experience, before we can come to a place of gratitude. Otherwise, our gratitude becomes hollow, artificial. Allow your children to feel what they feel, with adequate time and space. When the time feels right, see if there is an opportunity to include gratitude in the conversation.
Perhaps our practice of gratitude is one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves. We start to see all that is alive and breathing in our world, all of the collective energy and wisdom we are a part of. Whether we are grateful for our breath or another day, or whether we are grateful for a vacation or a yoga class, it is all important. We notice our life, and all of the details, and allow that noticing to sink into our lived experience.
If we can start this practice and conversation early, with our children, we take advantage of their young, resilient minds. Gratitude becomes something we share with them, deepening our understanding of them, and deepening our connection to them. More than that, we can encourage skills that will last them a lifetime, enhancing their own sense of wellness in this world.
Monisha Vasa, M.D. is a board certified General and Addiction Psychiatrist in private practice. She resides in Orange County, CA with her husband, two beloved children and two English Bulldogs. Dr. Vasa is the author of the new non-fiction children’s book, My Dearest One. For more information, please visit www.mindful-healing.com.