This is the time of year when parents tend to worry about whether they're spoiling their kids. How many gifts are too many to give during Christmas or Chanukah? Did we buy enough? Did our kids get what they wanted?
We want them to feel grateful, not entitled, yet it's actually something we can be thinking about -- and training them for -- all year long, according to Vancouver-based psychologists Dr. Carla Fry and Dr. Lisa Ferrari. With the holidays just days away, and the pressure on parents to raise thankful kids reaching its seasonal peak, their book, Gratitude & Kindness: A Modern Parents Guide to Raising Children in an Era of Entitlement, couldn't be more relevant.
"Gratitude is important at all times of the year, not just during the holidays," says Dr. Fry during a phone interview. "A single intervention, or even five in a week, doesn't bring lasting change; it has to be practiced regularly or it doesn't stick."
And you really do want it to stick. Studies show that those who are grateful sleep better, are happier, measurably healthier, have better relationships, live longer and are less stressed out. Grateful teens are even 10 times less likely to start smoking, their grades tend to be 20 percent higher and they have 13 percent fewer fights.
Drs. Fry and Ferrari offer several suggestions for teaching gratitude and kindness each day.
"The most powerful way to lock in the benefits is to write it down," says Dr. Ferrari. "Write down what's good in your life, and create your list in front of your kids so they have the chance to participate in the moment."
Talking about the senses tends to help kids define what they are thankful for, whether it was the cheesy pizza they had for dinner, their soft stuffed animal or cozy pyjamas.
Using the right language is another tool to teach children how to be grateful. "Take a moment to tell your kids how much you appreciated that they made their bed or helped clear the table after dinner," says Dr. Fry. "We can encourage our children through how we speak and the conversations we have using words like 'I appreciate,' 'I recognize' and 'I notice.' If they feel appreciated, they will want to do more without you having to bribe them or pay them an allowance. They will feel good knowing they did their part for the family."
How you frame things can make all the difference. Avoid guilting kids into helping around the house or making cards by using phrases like "do this because I asked you to" or "do it for Mommy." Instead, Drs. Fry and Ferrari suggest using another tack. "You want to recognize their value and worth and frame things in a way that gets their buy-in," says Dr. Ferrari. "You might try using words like 'us' and 'teamwork,' and saying something like 'thank you for helping with the dishes. When we each do our part for the family, we make such a great team.'"
Parents can also get their kids engaged in acts of kindness. Two years ago, Drs. Fry and Ferrari established a Kindness Patrol in which they enlist the help of children to perform acts of kindness around Vancouver. One time the children made thank you cards and handed them out to anyone they saw performing random acts of kindness for others. Another time they cleaned a beach and wrote uplifting messages in sidewalk chalk along the sea walk.
"It was so uplifting and the response from the community was overwhelming," says Dr. Ferrari. "Even small things make such a difference."
To incorporate the concept into your home, gauge what your child might be interested in doing. Encourage them even to hold doors for others, give up their seat on the bus, or help you as you're writing holiday cards this year.
As a reward for good work and kindness, they prefer giving kids shared experiences rather than gifts or money. "You can say to your kids, 'You guys cooperated so well this week, let's go to a movie to recognize our efforts,'" says Dr. Fry.
For more information and parenting advice, visit Drs. Fry and Ferrary at realparentinglab.com.
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