Guest post by Michelle DeRamus, Ph.D., Phenix City Children’s
To Brush their Teeth
To Ride a Bike
To Be Thankful?
I usually refrain from listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. But, this year, I found myself already turning the radio station to the familiar jingles and carols early in November. Perhaps I am swept up in my husband’s enthusiastic anticipation of buying our 2-year old daughter, Emily, all of the new and shiny presents that her small heart could desire and seeing her face light up as she unwraps each package. Maybe I am just ready to decorate our Christmas tree and to enjoy our upcoming celebrations with cherished family and friends. However, despite this impending excitement and joy, I am making it a priority to slow down and enjoy Thanksgiving first.
This holiday, which occurs almost strategically before all of the gift-giving associated with Christmas, is centered upon gratitude.
What is Gratitude?
Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives (both tangible and intangible). It is also an acknowledgement of the goodness inherent in our lives, which is at least partially attributed to sources greater than ourselves. Gratitude often serves as an outward link to people, nature, or a higher power.
When I was a child, my parents modeled gratitude all year long. I learned to say thank you for small everyday things, such as getting a cookie after dinner. I was also encouraged to budget my allowance so that I would have enough left over to help families in need, especially around the holidays. Through these tangible actions, I learned to enjoy helping others, partly because of the good feeling that came every time I did something charitable. I later learned that this wasn’t just a childish feeling of goodwill. In fact, in positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and repeatedly associated with greater happiness.
What are the Benefits?
Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, explains that being thankful has psychological, social, and even physical effects. Grateful people have higher levels of positive emotions, are more forgiving, more outgoing, feel less lonely, have less frequent periods of depression, feel more alert and alive, sleep longer, and have stronger immune systems, according to Emmons’ research.
How Do I Teach Gratitude to My Children?
Teaching gratitude to children can be as easy as keeping a gratitude journal, where you sit down together and write out a list of the things you are thankful for each week. Younger children may list items such as a stuffed animal or favorite book, but older children should be encouraged to think beyond their corner of the world. Encourage them to consider what they love about their school, their community, their country, and the world as a whole. Over the holidays especially, it is customary to go around the table and count your blessings verbally, or to pray together before eating. Other families may express gratitude by baking homemade treats for the neighbors or as thank you gifts for teachers at school.
The key to teaching gratitude is modeling the behavior. Rather than dropping your high school student off at the local soup kitchen to get community service hours for a sports team, go in with him/her and volunteer. I enjoy taking my daughter shopping to buy Christmas presents for another little girl, about her age. I let her pick out the items and then carefully explain that we are going to give them away. By helping me to pick the gifts that she would enjoy, Emily is engaged in the giving process.
Younger children will also learn gratitude from handing out gifts to older relatives, helping to put the bows and ribbons on presents or simply expressing to Grandma when receiving a scratchy wool scarf for the fifth Christmas in a row. In our office this season, we are working to put up a “Wall of Thankfulness.” When patients come in, they are given a piece of construction paper and a crayon. We ask them to draw pictures of all of the things and people that they are thankful for and then add them to a collective board of drawings for other patients to see.
When families come for psychology sessions, they often feel overwhelmed with the negative situation they are experiencing, which could include behavior problems, troubles at school or other issues. Rather than focus on the missing elements, or negatives, I encourage them to take a step back and re-evaluate the situation. Even in the most challenging of circumstances, it is possible to peel back the layers of bitterness, anger, regret and anxiety and to find things to be thankful for.
By fostering gratitude in children at an early age, a thankful attitude is ingrained in them throughout the entire year- long after the turkey has been eaten. Such attitudes of gratefulness are paramount to society, as grateful children grow up to become grateful adults.
Teach your kids gratitude now; they will thank you later.
Dr. DeRamus is a child psychologist who specializes in autism. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Alabama and currently works at Phenix City Children’s.
Emmons, R. (2010, November 16). Why gratitude is good.
Harvard Health Publications. (2011, November). In praise of gratitude.
Miller, M. (2013, August 27). The mental health benefits of gratitude.
Photo Credit: Graphicleftovers.com