I don’t know about you, but I can often find it overwhelming when my children seem ungrateful. I’m sure one of the most common phrases I hear when emotions are high and exhaustion is rife in our household is, “but it’s not fair!!!”. (And let’s be honest, the high-pitched tone that goes with this all too common phrase is enough to drive any parent crazy!).
The thing is, this isn’t only a phrase commonly used by children. Whilst an “ungrateful attitude” in an adult may be masked with more sophisticated words and phrases and perhaps a less offensive high pitched tone, the essence of our human nature that is often quick to focus on how we have missed out, is still a struggle for us grown-ups.
- The gossip when a colleague gets a promotion that we felt we deserved more.
- The nasty backchanneling about our employer as we don’t feel they ‘value us enough’.
- The resentment towards our partner because ‘we work far harder at keeping the house tidy than they do’.
- The frustration that our children take up so much of our time and energy, taking us away from what WE want.
Now, I’m not saying that disappointment when we don’t get a promotion or employers who don’t seem to value us, or partners who aren’t very helpful or children who are exhausting aren’t real and genuine struggles. They are (and yes some of these examples are my own personal ones!!). So let me say this to preface everything else – as human beings, feelings of disappointment, resentment, frustration, and even anger are not in and of themselves bad. Feelings make us human and pretending we don’t feel a certain way or stuffing those feelings down inside is never healthy. Genuine gratitude doesn’t come when we just pretend we aren’t disappointed or frustrated or resentful. Genuine gratitude comes from acknowledging how we feel but then taking steps to practice where we choose to place our focus. But like any skill, this takes practice and we won’t always get it right!
Gratitude is something that we know is not only a characteristic (and skill) that aids a person’s ability to engage positively with those around them, it is also something that is a protective factor against mental health challenges. And this is the simple science as to why….
Our brains are truly incredible! Once, what we thought was a human organ unable to change, is now something science has proven to have “plasticity”. In fact, the scientific word for how our brains grow, develop, and change across the life span is referred to as “neuro-plasticity”. And, don’t be put off by the science! This knowledge is not only empowering as we raise our children to practice gratitude, it is essential to understanding our own wellbeing as parents too!
The human brain is wired by experience. Therefore, the more we think a certain thought or practice a certain action, the stronger the pathway in our brain develops until those thoughts and actions become engrained. Think of a child learning to walk. At first, their steps are wobbly and they fall- a lot! It takes concentration and explicit focus. However, as the body practices the action of taking steps over and over, the pathway in the brain that links all the right parts needed to walk, becomes so strong that eventually, the act of walking becomes subconscious and seamless.
It is the same process that applies to the human brain as it lays down pathways that help us to be grateful! The more we practice gratitude consciously (with explicit practice), the stronger the pathway in our brain becomes AND the more “helpful chemicals” in our brain are released to boost our overall wellbeing.
So, what might this practicing gratitude look like in our daily lives and, if we know the brain is wired by experience, how can our displays of gratitude as parents impact our children’s gratitude?
- Making a point to genuinely thank people in front of our children.
- Being explicit in talking about genuine moments in our day with our children, where we were thankful for something simple. (Eg. “I am so thankful for the rain today. It’s making our lawn lovely and green!”)
- Modeling gratitude towards our children for the small things. (Eg. “Thank you so much for remembering to pop your lunchbox on the bench. I really appreciate you.”)
- Having a mealtime or bedtime ritual where everyone shares something they are grateful for (focusing on the small things can be a great way to bring a sense of mindfulness to simple, everyday moments).
Parenting is complex and can be overwhelming and at times, I know I can get swept up in my own ungrateful attitude. However, I’ve most certainly been reflecting lately that when my children are consistently demonstrating ungrateful attitudes, I can also choose to become annoyed and resentful OR, I can be thankful for the messy moments in parenting that provide me with opportunities to model to my children genuine gratitude.
If the brain is wired by experience, the best place I can start in helping the positive wiring of gratitude in my children’s brains is to immerse them in my own genuine gratitude as we journey life together!
Heidi Denner is a wife, mum, and educator who is continually inspired by all she learns from the children she works with daily, (and in particular her own three children). As a mother to an autistic child, Heidi is an advocate for children’s needs, but also understands the significance of family mental health and wellbeing and how this is critical to a child’s overall development. As an avid reader and life-long learner regarding all things “neuroscience”, Heidi loves sharing current research regarding brain development so that families can understand how to best support their child’s needs and their own personal mental health and wellbeing.