At the start of 2016, many of us made resolutions to better parent our children in the new year. More than ever, it feels important to help our kids develop tools that will allow them to grow into conscious, healthy adults. One of the most important skills for lifelong emotional well-being? Gratitude.
As a psychiatrist and mother of two young children, gratitude is both professionally and personally important to me. I witness in my adult patients the challenges of learning new skills later in life and the many potential benefits of instilling mindfulness and gratitude practices from a young age.
With my own children, I appreciate how easily they can understand the idea of gratitude and how it contributes to their overall sense of well-being and happiness. With just a little bit of practice and encouragement, children can readily grasp gratitude. This helps them to build a solid foundation for mental health as they grow into adulthood.
Here are five quick, easy (and free!) methods I recommend to encourage an attitude of gratitude in our children:
1. Engage in random acts of kindness.
Children will often spontaneously share a toy or friendly words with a teacher, friend, or relative. Notice when children are acting or speaking in a kind manner and say out loud how much you value their kindness.
Similarly, allow children to witness you modeling being helpful and kind to others in small or big ways. Children will often replicate our behavior. Noticing and participating in acts of kindness as a family allows for more connection and positive experiences, which we can all be grateful for.
2. Spend time in nature.
Nature allows children and adults alike to slow down from the constant stimulation of day-to-day life. At a slower pace, we can become more mindful and use our senses to notice all of the beauty in the world around us. We can feel grateful for the cool, shady trees or the colors of a vivid sunset.
Keeping it simple works best. In our family, we often notice the interesting cloud patterns in the sky while walking into school, or take short walks together in the evenings. Noticing nature, even for a brief moment, allows us to appreciate the beauty that exists around us and appreciate something larger than ourselves.
3. Create a nightly reflection ritual.
After a meal, bath time and a story, children are often more relaxed and open to connection with parents. Use this time as an opportunity to reflect on the “highs” and “lows” of the day.
Parents can start by sharing their own joys and challenges, which opens up the lines of communication and encourages children to reflect and share as well. Taking time on a daily basis to think about the day and consciously focus on big and small things that went well encourages gratitude from a young age.
4. Practice mindfulness at meals.
Removing toys, electronics, and books from the table can help children focus on their food and use all of their senses to enjoy and appreciate their meal as they eat.
While eating, consider asking children to reflect on how their food came to be on their plate. For example, a strawberry didn’t just magically appear. There needed to be fertile soil, wind, sun, water, a farmer, a truck, and a market just to get the strawberry from the field to the plate. Allowing children to reflect on all that had to happen in order for the strawberry to be eaten affords a greater sense of wonder and appreciation for food.
5. Volunteer in age-appropriate ways.
Volunteering can help children realize how fortunate they are, by giving them the opportunity to help those less fortunate. Children may have an inherent compassion for a particular cause. For example, some might feel strongly about protecting the environment; others may feel strongly toward protecting animals.
Consider your children’s natural interests and discover ways of helping that are age-appropriate. Ideas include raising money for a local animal shelter, helping out at a food bank or soup kitchen, or even running a 5K to raise money for a particular cause that touches your child’s heart.
Activities that support thankfulness need not be expensive or time-consuming. Best of all, make gratitude a daily part of your own life, and children will naturally follow suit.
Dr. Monisha Vasa is a board certified General and Addiction Psychiatrist, in private practice in Newport Beach, California. She lives in Orange County with her husband, two young children, and two English bulldogs. She is a marathon runner and a student of yoga and meditation. Dr. Vasa recently published her first children's book, entitled "My Dearest One." You can learn more about Dr. Vasa at www.mindful-healing.com.