As a society, we tend to place a lot of value on the concept of gratitude. And as parents, many of us try to encourage our children to feel grateful for what they have. And for good reason! There have been numerous studies that show how beneficial the practice of gratitude can be – for both kids and adults. Gratitude can reduce anxiety and depression, improve self-esteem and resilience, and lead to better sleep. It can even decrease the likelihood of physical illness. There is no doubt that practicing gratitude is good for our health
But many of us have a complex relationship with gratitude that includes a lot of guilt. We grew up with gratitude being strongly encouraged, or even expected of us. We were taught that gratitude is something we “should” express at every opportunity, and that being ungrateful is disrespectful. Many of us heard comments like:
- “You have no reason to be upset, you have so much to be grateful for!”
- “I did so much for you today, the least you could do is show some appreciation”
- “Stop complaining about your dinner. You should be grateful you even have food to eat – there are children in the world who have nothing!”
- “How dare you be so ungrateful, after all the sacrifices I’ve made for you!”
Maybe you’ve even repeated comments like this to your own children? After all, you want them to understand just how lucky they are, right? You want to raise kids who are kind and appreciative of the things others do for them.
But as well-meaning as these comments generally are, they can feel really dismissive to kids. They leave very little space for any other emotions. And they cause them to believe that expressing so-called “negative” emotions is somehow wrong. And so, in our well-intentioned quest to instill gratitude in our children, we slide towards guilt, invalidation, and shame.
What gratitude REALLY IS
As parents attempting to teach our kids about gratitude, we tend to focus on the expression of gratitude. We focus on behaviours like saying thank you. But gratitude is so much more than saying thank you. Real gratitude is a practice that develops over time. It’s about:
- Developing awareness of the things you have to be thankful for.
- Making meaning out of that awareness by fully exploring your thoughts and feelings about them
- And THEN expressing gratitude through your words and actions.
When we focus only on the behavioural aspect of gratitude, we quickly fall into a pattern of forcing our kids to express gratitude before they have had an opportunity to make meaning out of their experience. We rob them of an opportunity to fully understand and experience gratitude in an authentic way. And we prevent them from developing awareness of their thoughts and feelings. “Just be grateful” doesn’t encourage reflection or self-awareness, and it doesn’t teach kids to manage their emotions. In fact, it has the opposite effect – it shuts emotions down.
Somewhere along the way, the message we received about gratitude became slightly skewed. We were taught that gratitude was the solution to any “negative” emotion. That by simply replacing emotions like anger, sadness or disappointment with gratitude would lead us to feel happier and more optimistic.
The problem with thinking of gratitude in this way is that it starts to feel invalidating. It becomes yet another way to avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions. Another way to shut our kids down when we find their expressions of anger, frustration, or disappointment too difficult to cope with.
Gratitude can co-exist with other emotions
When kids receive messages like this about gratitude, they also start to believe that feeling and expressing other emotions is bad. They believe that they “should” feel grateful for all the good things they have in their lives. And they feel guilty and ashamed when they experience other emotions. Things like disappointment, frustration, anger, or sadness.
But here’s the thing: there is nothing wrong with experiencing, or expressing those emotions. Emotions are not inherently positive or negative. Nor are they all or nothing. We don’t feel 100% happy or 100% sad. How we feel at any given moment in the day is generally a mixture of a whole range of emotions. This is the human experience. And gratitude is no exception to that.
We can feel grateful for the gifts we received, and also disappointed that we didn’t get that one thing we really wanted. We can feel grateful for all the wonderful people in our lives, and also sad that our best friend is moving away. We can feel grateful for our beautiful children and also frustrated by their challenging behaviour. And we can do all of those things at the same time.
Because gratitude can (and does) co-exist with other emotions. And when we teach our children this, then we can truly tap into their authentic feelings of gratitude, not just the ones they feel obliged to express.
How to teach kids gratitude without being invalidating
1. Remember that gratitude is a developmental skill
If your child is below the age of six, chances are they’re not great at expressing gratitude just yet. It’s a tricky concept for little ones to grasp. It’s also closely linked to empathy, which very young children simply haven’t developed yet – at least not to the degree required to understand gratitude. So it’s important for you to adjust your expectations, and your language, if you want to teach your little one about gratitude.
Modeling gratitude as you go about your day, narrating your experience to your young child using a range of language. There are so many small, simple opportunities for practicing gratitude during the day. It could be an acknowledgment of a simple pleasure: “It’s so nice to sit outside in the sunshine today isn’t it?” It could be an expression of appreciation for something your child has done: “I noticed that you took your plate to the sink without me asking. Thank you for your help.” It could be an expression of gratitude for someone else’s kind gesture: “Aunt Sam really helped us out last week when she picked your brother up from school. We’re so lucky to have her in our lives. Let’s think of something kind we can do to let her know how much we love her.”
2. Allow for expression of ALL emotions
If we want our children to truly understand and experience gratitude in an authentic and meaningful way, we need to hold space for all of their emotions – not just the positive ones. Allowing children to acknowledge and express all the feelings they experience during a day, allows them to understand that all feelings are ok. It also helps them understand that we can feel many different emotions at once. That experiencing difficult things during the day doesn’t “cancel out” the positives. They begin to understand that a range of experiences, thoughts and emotions can exist at once and that it’s ok to hold space for all of them simultaneously.
A nightly gratitude ritual that allows kids to talk about the full range of emotions they experienced during the day. An exercise like rose, bud, thorn is a great way to encourage awareness of and reflection about all emotions at the end of the day. My family does this around the dinner table, but you could do it after school, or at bedtime, or any time of the day that feels right to you!
Rose: One thing you are grateful for, or that went well today
Bud: One thing you want to work on or are looking forward to tomorrow
Thorn: One thing you found difficult today
Replace BUT with AND
Often when we attempt to encourage gratitude in our kids (or even when we attempt to practice it ourselves), we say things like: “I may be feeling lonely, but at least I still have my health.” Or, “I know you’re sad about your friend moving away, but at least you still have your other friends close by.” And that tiny little ’but’ can feel hugely invalidating.
It can feel like the sadness or disappointment we’re feeling in those situations is irrelevant and that the “good” emotions or experiences should somehow cancel those other feelings out. It can make children feel like we don’t want to hear about the challenging situations or “negative” emotions and that we just want them to “think positively.” But as we’ve already discussed, gratitude is not about positive thinking. And children cannot develop a true appreciation for the good things in their lives if they are never allowed to reflect on or discuss the not-so-good things.
Replacing BUT with AND. You can be feeling sad AND thankful that you are healthy. Your child can miss their friend AND be grateful for her other friends. Using ‘and’ helps children understand that two seemingly opposing feelings or two different experiences can peacefully co-exist. It helps them feel heard and validated, and it also acknowledges that even in difficult times, there are still things to be thankful for. It reduces shame and guilt around situations where kids don’t feel grateful (because not feeling grateful is ok too!). And it allows space for all emotions. Using BUT is dismissive and invalidating. But using AND is respectful and hopeful. It allows children to get to gratitude all on their own. Which is what we were aiming for all along.
Sarah Conway is a child and adolescent psychologist, mother of 4, and founder of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 15 years of experience working in mental health with children, teenagers, and families. Sarah’s mission is to help parents move away from punitive parenting strategies and towards mindful, intentional parenting that builds emotional intelligence in kids and parents alike. As a busy mum herself, she knows firsthand how difficult mindful parenting can be, particularly when it was never modeled by our own parents. That’s why she provides parents and children with simple, practical strategies and tools that help them learn to manage emotions – together. She believes that changing the way we parent will change the world.