A young couple and their little girl, who appears to be about three years old, are sitting at a table in a restaurant. The parents tuck into their food and begin to talk about their day.
“So how was work?”
“Don’t even start, it was awful.”
“It was a disaster at home, too.”
The little girl obviously isn’t hungry. She’s just sitting there, playing with her food.
“See what I mean? We take her to a restaurant and she just picks at her food. And she doesn’t even say thank you!”
“Right. And to top it off, it’s now started raining…“
All three of them look as though they’re genuinely having the worst day of their life. If only they had a magic wand to brighten everything up...
It happens to the best of us. Some days we look at everything gloomily. Children also have those kinds of days. But we actually do have a magic wand at hand: gratefulness.
Thanks to evolution, humans always notice a threatening situation. How else could we survive in the wild? These days, it is unlikely we’ll be eaten by a bear on our way to work, but our brains are still constantly on the lookout for trouble. And when we get too hung-up on (potential) problems, that has an impact on our health, both mental and physical.
There’s no point in condemning what nature has given us. Instead we can learn how to work with our natural tendencies – and to teach our children how to do the same. Because gratefulness is also an innate ability. And it is far more than simply a nicety. It is the ability to identify and appreciate all the positive aspects of our lives.
Gratefulness has to be practised
Research has shown that deliberately developing gratefulness has a beneficial effect on the mental health of young and old alike. People who practise being grateful are happier, more optimistic, have better relationships with others, and even sleep better. Additionally, gratefulness has been known to deter the tendency toward addiction.
It probably sounds a little strange to talk about ‘practising’ gratefulness. Doesn’t it have to be spontaneous to be genuine? Not really. It is just a matter of re-tuning our perspective on the world we live in. Sometimes all it takes is for us to pause and focus for a moment on the pleasant aspects of our lives, things that bring us joy. That doesn’t mean putting on rose-tinted spectacles or denying reality, but looking at our life from a slightly different angle.
It’s easiest to start the re-tuning at a time when things are going quite well. Little by little, begin to look around, notice, and give some thought to what there is to be grateful for. It might be the first shiny conker of the year that you’ve spotted lying in the dewy grass (or indeed, the dewy grass itself), a delicious lunch, a new book from the library… In short, it can be anything, big or small. Children are often able to realise little pleasures of their own. If we help them develop that skill, they are more inclined to use it from then on, into the future. In fact, the whole family will benefit – as does the family in today’s story.
There are many different ways of developing gratitude, and plenty of creative scope involved in the process. The most important thing is to make a start, practise regularly, and keep at it, letting it develop steadily over a period of time. Children love rituals, so why not introduce the practice of gratitude into their day. Some suggestions:
At bedtime, tell each other three nice things that you experienced that day.
On the way to school or nursery, name a few things that you are looking forward to.
Over dinner, ask each member of the family to tell one lovely thing that happened that day.
Create a space to record everything you’re grateful for. You could write things down on a slip of paper and put them in a jar. Or you could cut the paper into leaf-shaped pieces and stick them onto a gratefulness tree – either a real one or one you’ve made, or you could even draw a tree on the wall or on a blackboard. You could keep a gratitude diary, writing about the pleasant things in your life. It’s also good to focus on what you’ve achieved. Did you do well on your test at school? Or paint a pretty picture? Did you learn something new? Or help Grandma in the garden? If you write down your achievements or say them aloud, it will exercise another valuable skill: self-appreciation.
Grateful parents raise grateful children Children learn by imitation. So the simplest way of passing along a skill or a behaviour is to practise that skill or behaviour yourself. It’s definitely good to talk to your children about the tiny things that have brightened up your day. By doing so, you reveal all sorts of things that you – and they – can be grateful for, and at the same time, you express your own gratefulness to your children. Moreover, you will be showing them that gratefulness can be expressed in all sorts of different ways, for example through a smile. If you aren’t used to it, the art of gratefulness won’t come overnight. It will be a gradual process, but well worth the effort. If you’re unsure as to how to begin, just take a look around you, like the parents in our story. Abracadabra…
“Do you know what?” Dad says, all of a sudden, looking up from the table. “It’s actually fantastic that it’s raining! I can show you how to dance in-between the raindrops. Shall we?”
Mum stops telling her little girl off for leaving food on her plate. In that instant, she remembers the first time her husband kissed her, when they were out on a date and had to shelter from the rain in a doorway. She grabs the little girl by the hand and says: “Let’s go! The streets will be full of mirrors now, thanks to the puddles. Do you remember the mirror we read about earlier in the Snow White story? Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?”
“I’ll be the first to get to a puddle!” squeals the little girl with glee, rushing to the door. It’s raining cats and dogs, but magically, everyone feels joyful.
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