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Being grateful in 2024

This time last year, our first blog in 2023 was about the power of optimistic thinking because we reckoned 2022 had been quite tough and we wanted to squeeze the best out of 2023. I’m not sure how you got on over the last 12 months, but personally I’ve found it hard at times in 2023 to think about the upsides! And yet every time I’ve managed to be more optimistic, it has helped me feel more balanced and think more clearly.

And being grateful has similarly powerful effects on our mood and behaviour.

When we appreciate and are grateful for what we have, we get a dose of oxytocin which promotes feelings of relaxation, calmness, and safety. When we think about how lucky we are to have certain things, it nullifies feelings of resentment and bitterness which have such horrible effects on our mood and behaviour, and indeed relationships. Being grateful has been linked to lower levels of materialism and depression. It’s associated with higher levels of determination, generosity and feeling loved.

Put simply, children (and adults!) who are aware of, and grateful for, the good things they have, are happier and healthier – emotionally, physically and socially!

But kids often seem very ungrateful. They keep asking for more. They can be very careless about what they have. They often forget – or don’t see why they need – to say thank you.

What’s going on?

Quite a few things it turns out ….

First, being grateful is not in our nature. It’s all about nurture.

In a major study at Yale University and the University of California in 2019, psychologists found that negative reciprocity (bearing a grudge and paying someone back in a mean way) is instinctive in young children, but positive reciprocity (returning a favour to someone who has been kind or generous to you) is not natural. In the various tests, young kids are completely unaware of any sense or obligation to pay back in a positive way. And yet positive reciprocity is fundamental to success of communities and is highly valued in society today.

After the kids were told stories of gratitude and appreciation, they started to show signs of paying back positively.

And kids have lots of stuff in our world today.

We buy our kids a lot of things, and there are lots of good reasons (and some not so good reasons) why parents do this. So most of our children have a lot more than we did when we were young. My sons had lego and train sets which my husband dreamed about as a child but never owned himself.

But today’s children don’t know any different. In their minds, it is completely normal to have lots of things – whether that’s material possessions or exciting experiences. And this means today’s children expect stuff. They expect to receive gifts for their birthday and Christmas. They expect to receive a party bag when it’s someone else’s birthday. They probably expect a toy or something whenever they get a burger! They expect to be taken to the museum or theatre because that’s what happens in their peer families. They expect to go on holidays because it’s happened many times before. It’s not that they’re entitled or spoiled per se, although it can absolutely look and sound like that.

Interestingly, pointing out that we (and children in other parts of the world and different situations) had much less, doesn’t create gratitude. Thinking of people who have much less than we do doesn’t make us grateful because our brains can’t focus on something negative and something positive at the same time!

And just like we give our kids lots of things, we also do too many things for them.

We love our kids and we want them to be happy. It makes sense to make their life as easy as possible – whether that’s tidying up after them, sorting things out for them, fetching and carrying things for them, another example here if possible. It may make us feel resentful at times, but it does protect us from having to deal with their frustration and upset!

But it means our kids get used to being helped out and rescued whenever things get tricky for them. It’s just what happens in their life, like getting birthday presents. They don’t become grateful for it. They become dependent on it, and when it doesn’t happen, they feel abandoned and hurt.

Lastly, children often associate being grateful with being dependent.

Kids have a strong urge for autonomy and, particularly in the teen years, a strong need to show they are independent of us. Saying “thanks for doing my laundry” proves (in their mind) that they can’t cope on their own. I wish I had known this a few years ago! In their early 20s, my sons are very appreciative of any domestic support, but my goodness they came across as rude and ungrateful in their teens!

So how can we nurture gratitude in our families in 2024?

Modelling

It’s hard to become or do something if you’ve no experience of seeing or hearing it in action. And guess what’s a super way to model expressing gratitude? Using Descriptive Praise to shine a light on the best bits of your child’s behaviour!

Making it part of the daily routine

Why not make being grateful a regular and overt habit in the family by setting a particular time for it? Maybe at a family meal, at bedtime, or even first thing in the morning?

Encouraging volunteering

As we’ve learned, we can tell our kids they’re really lucky, but they really only learn to feel lucky by experiencing how little others have. For sure, in the moment, this can be a little upsetting and worrying. But doing your bit to make things a little bit better for others counteracts this.

In the US, high school students are required to have volunteering hours as part of the National Honours Society or as a requirement to graduate. What starts of as a something to tick off their to-do list, many find it a fulfilling and affirmative experience.

Avoiding bribes

We often talk about the difficulties with bribing and rewarding. Here’s the low-down - do give Descriptive Praise (and bits of pasta!) when your kids do the right thing or at least try to, but avoid offering material things in exchange for positive behaviour as much as possible.

Just as with giving birthday and Christmas presents, offering material bribes and rewards, creates what’s called an exchange relationship. I am absolutely not advocating cancelling presents or stopping holidays or special outings by the way! But becoming accustomed to receiving things on a transactional basis – you do your homework, you get a biscuit, you pass an exam and get a voucher, you make your bed and get to watch TV - fuels that sense of entitlement, and leads to a lot of negotiating with many kids too!

Offering surprises

This seems to go against avoiding bribes, but bear with me! In another Yale University study, they found that when children received random gifts it had a deep emotional impact which led to more appreciation and more generosity to others.

Finally, here’s a lovely thing about gratitude … We don’t actually have to do much, we just have to think grateful thoughts to experience the benefits. And it’s really not that hard once we get started. The more we acknowledge the positives in our lives and families, our brains start looking for more things we can be grateful for and off we go!

We wish you all a happy and grateful New Year!