The Most Powerful Thing to Teach Children After Christmas

29 December 2017, Byul Ryan-Im

Dear Aunty Mable, thank you so much for the Christmas sweater, it made a wonderful chew toy for the dog is beautiful and I wear it every day.”

Christmas can often be about one thing for kids – presents. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles can fret for weeks about how to outdo last year’s gift, or compete with each other for the season’s most prized present. Sometimes you are rewarded with squeals of delight on Christmas morning, other times it’s the “Oh…that’s nice.” Or worse, “Guess what Tommy’s dad got *him* for Christmas?!”

But now that the wrapping has been recycled and the Facebook photos posted, are you a parent who encourages (or makes) your child send thank you cards? Or perhaps your older children do this of their own accord? Personally, I dread the thought of writing them, but find that once I’ve started it can be quite enjoyable. It reminds me who gave what and forces me to think of something lovely about the gift, whether it’s just the right colour, something I didn’t even know I needed, or if all else fails, a gift that came with the best of intentions.

We sometimes underrate or belittle gratitude, especially if it’s just a simple “Thank you”. Too often, giving gifts becomes a competition as to who can give the best, and receiving a pricey parcel can leave some of us feeling more stressed than grateful, if we think it mandates giving something of equal or higher monetary value in return.

Yet studies reveal a strong correlation between gratitude and emotional wellbeing. Research by the Youth Gratitude Project found that compared to their less grateful peers, grateful 11 to 13 year olds are happier, have better social support, are more satisfied with their school, family, community, friends, and themselves. They also give more emotional support to others. Grateful teens (aged 14 to 19) are more satisfied with their lives, have higher GPAs, are more engaged in schoolwork and hobbies and are less envious, depressed, and materialistic. They are also more likely to give back to their society.

In a commercial society of give nothing, get nothing, we are too quick to equate “giving” with “spending”. But the two are different. We spend time and money and cannot get them back. Spending them decreases our net amount of dollars or hours. Giving is different. When we give hugs, smiles and, yes, thank you cards, it’s more often the case that we increase our net amount and gain rather than lose. Ironically, when we give expecting nothing in return we often receive more, and are more grateful for it, than when we spend money and expect a return of equal value.

Showing gratitude and appreciation need not entail spending. Giving a simple but heartfelt “thank you” and accepting that, just maybe, we are deserving of it is surely better than trying to outdo someone with a bigger present and showing no appreciation for their gift.

My friend received a surprise Christmas hamper this year from distant relatives on another continent. She was immensely grateful but professed an equal amount of anxiety. “I feel awful! I haven’t sent them anything! They’ve got so many friends and relatives around the world; why on earth would they spend all this on me?” I pointed out what most of us have trouble recognizing from a first person perspective: that she is 100% worth it, simply for being herself. People don’t spend time or money on things they don’t think are worthwhile. My friend’s gift was evidence that she is worthy of appreciation, whether or not she feels so herself. Unfortunately my friend is not alone in coming to the opposite (but false) conclusion: thinking that receiving something wonderful proves how unworthy we are, if we feel we haven’t done anything in particular to deserve it.

So how to raise more grateful kids? Practice what you preach! Children follow examples more than orders. You can keep telling your child to say thank you, but to make it a habit of their own, let them see you showing gratitude to them and others as much as possible. Gratitude is cultivated not commanded. Imagine how you might finish these sentences: “You should be grateful that…” versus “I am grateful that…” The first style is more likely to cultivate fear of punishment than gratitude.

A starter practice is keeping a gratitude journal (much cheaper than a session on the therapist’s couch). Grab a notebook and pen and jot down five things you are grateful for each night before bed. Start small: I’m grateful for the nice weather, for someone holding the door open for me, for managing to get out of bed this morning. It may feel cheesy at first but in a true case of “fake it till you make it”, the more you practice, the more genuinely grateful you feel. Noticing the myriad of tiny positive points each day eventually becomes a habit of happiness. Normally we rush through life without reflecting on the vast amount of positive things that happen and instead focus on one or two seemingly negative things.

Hence the power of the humble Thank You card. Obviously showing gratitude doesn’t only benefit you; the recipient gets a buzz of joy knowing their effort amounted to some appreciation. The icing on the (Christmas) cake is when a note shows: a) you know what they gave you; b) you appreciate it; and c) a little insight into why it is so great (this suggests you spent at least five seconds thinking about the gift before tearing open the next one).

So if you want happier, healthier, more engaged and higher achieving kids, grab your glue, glitter and gratitude, and get crafty together. Oh, and try not to order the kids into a card-writing factory line, start having fun without them and they’ll soon want to join in!

For more ideas on raising grateful kids check out the Youth Gratitude Project and the Making Grateful Kids blog.

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