As we prepare to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on being thankful. Really, thankfulness – or gratitude – should be embraced and practised regularly and certainly more than once a year. Like any virtue, the act of being grateful is very important for children in order to develop healthy outlooks on the things that matter. When all is said and done, the quality of being thankful and a readiness to show appreciation are profoundly linked to overall happiness. Teaching gratitude by example is a serious responsibility, if we want to equip them to live happy lives.
Today, psychologists studying gratitude note that being grateful means much more than just saying thank you. Not only is the experience and expression of gratitude broader than thanking others, but it requires that children use a set of complex socio-emotional skills. For example, researchers at the University of North Carolina argue that gratitude in children involves perspective taking and emotional knowledge, skills that children begin to develop more quickly around ages three to five. In our work with children, we see that the seeds of gratitude are definitely sown at a young age.
The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. In some ways gratitude encompasses all of these meanings. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than or beyond themselves.
Research also suggests that the experience of gratitude has four parts, all of which we rarely teach to our kids. The first part focuses on what we notice in our lives for which we can be grateful. The second involves how we think about why we have been given those things. Next relates to how we feel about the things we have been given. And finally – and this is an important part – what we do to express appreciation. As with all forms of prosocial behaviour, the action of demonstrating gratitude is key.
Why should we be concerned with helping young people develop an attitude of gratitude? We should do so because it is an investment in their future health and well-being. Gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people build positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and foster strong relationships.
We have all known people who are the “poster children” of gratitude. It is easy to spot them. To begin with, their faces are lovely. They smile with their eyes and they seem indefatigable when beset by obstacles and challenges. They put other people at ease. They speak the truth plainly. They appreciate others and their optimism energizes others around them. They are thankful for the little things and never miss a chance to celebrate the big ones!
Teaching and modelling gratitude is not a fluffy or woolly task. It is actually an important responsibility, if we are serious about the formation of the next generation. After all, we are not really in the business of “raising children”. We are in the business of “raising adults” – the kind who can one day uplift and inspire others in their own lives.
There is no question that children’s understanding of the value of gratitude is based on the attitudes and behaviors of the adults in their lives. As we gather with family and friends this Thanksgiving, those of us with children can reflect on the messages we send about the importance of expressing gratitude in our own lives.
Bonne Action de Grâce! Happy Thanksgiving!
Ric Anderson, Head of School