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The great benefits of gratitude for children

Published November 17, 2011 4:58 pm

Parenting • The benefits of raising grateful children endure into adulthood.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Whenever David Meikle thinks about the difficulties of the ongoing Great Recession, he thinks back to the words of his grandfather, who lived through the Great Depression.

"One time I said to him that times back then couldn't have been so bad if people could still sell apples for a living," said Meikle, 42, a noted painter living in Salt Lake City. "He let me know in no uncertain terms just how bad things were in the 1930s, because he lost everything, then started all over again."

When Lacy Egbert, Meikle's wife, gave birth prematurely to the couple's third child in 2006, she remembers being envious of the woman in the hospital bed next to her. She was able to hold and nurse her baby, while Egbert's was away in an intensive-care unit. When Egbert learned later that the woman's child was born with far more complications than her own, she felt somewhat ashamed.

"I was the woman who should have been grateful," Egbert said. "It was a moment that really changed my outlook."

Combined with her husband's recollection of his grandfather's perseverance, it was also a moment that changed their family. After Sam, now 5, made it out of ICU and back into Egbert's arms, the couple decided to make fostering a grateful attitude in their four children a priority.

Visit their household today, and you'll see a "Grateful List" written in colored crayon on all their bedroom doors. The list of reasons to be grateful range from life's necessities — "bed" and "family" come up for frequent mention — to the exotic — Daniel, 8, is partial to Pokémon. They even fall into the political realm, with 7-year-old Amelia grateful for President Barack Obama.

"[Being grateful] means being happy and loving for all that you have, and knowing that there's nothing else you need," Amelia said.

Skeptics will no doubt scoff. The wisdom of a child, however, is backed by numerous studies linking better sleep and stress management, stronger relationships, less depression and fewer health problems to those who maintain an attitude of gratitude. And habits fostered early in life extend into adulthood.

A leading expert in the field known as "positive psychology," University of California Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons penned an entire book on the subject in 2007, titled Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.

Rene J. Valles, a child psychiatrist with Valley Mental Health, said the link between gratitude and good overall health is solid.

"Just having a positive attitude in itself can improve not only children's mental health, but also physical health," Valles said.

But don't be too hard on yourself as a parent if your toddler or child doesn't take to that sentiment right away. A self-centered orientation is a normal part of development, with abstract concepts such as thankfulness acquired in time as children age, Valles said. Starting early helps.

Being a role model is crucial. Saying "thank you" to your friends in conversation, showing appreciation for a meal, whether in prayer or compliments to the chef, and marveling at the beauty of a sunset are all behaviors your children will learn gratitude from far better than if you merely instruct or tell them. The old saw about spoiling your child applies, too.

"If children see parents who are materialistic, who must have the latest car or electronic equipment, that sends a mixed message of entitlement," Valles said. "There's a tendency to undervalue objects when you have a lot of them."

A gratitude journal — similar to the bedroom-door lists of Egbert and Meikle's children — goes a long way. So does talking about what happened during your child's day.

"We go over everything that happened during their day," said Egbert, who works part time in marketing at the University of Utah. "From the good to the bad. But we always try to come back to the good so they can focus on a positive note."

These simple behaviors teach children to be grateful not only for what they have by sheer chance — being born inside the borders of a stable, modern and prosperous country that affords opportunity — but also for what others do for them.

Douglas Goldsmith, executive director of The Children's Center and licensed child psychologist, urges parents to preface as many sentences as possible with the words, "How wonderful it is that ..." Fill in the blank, Goldsmith said, and you give a child a valuable perspective on life's myriad gifts and wonders.

It's no easy goal. In a consumer-driven world where even so-called adults have grown skeptical and angry over what they want or don't have, it may even seem impossible. Those facts alone, Goldsmith said, make striving for gratitude all the more worthwhile.

"As soon as we say the word 'gratitude,' people roll their eyes," he said. "We should ask them what they're rolling their eyes for. That we cannot remember why we should be grateful is probably how we've become so disappointed and disenfranchised as a society."

Egbert admits she struggles to be satisfied with all she has herself sometimes. She sometimes longs for the latest Apple product, and there are of course times when her children act up.

"I tell them, 'You may not feel grateful now, but you will one day,' " she said. "It never hurts to keep reminding them."

bfulton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Artsalt

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Foster gratitude in children

1. Keep a journal of gratitude, and write in it often: In addition to letting your child practice writing skills, it's also a creative act that invests them in a learning process.

2. Be an example: We all know people who hate their jobs, despise their spouse or family members, and rarely say a kind word. Unless you want your child to become one of them, move your own speech and behavior in the direction of more positive territory.

3. Emphasize family events, traditions and personal experiences over material goods: Few of us look back on our lives to remember a car we drove or a gadget we enjoyed. Most of us are instead grateful for times we shared with family and friends.

4. Watch the news with your child, or keep a current events magazine around the house for discussion: With its natural disasters, wars, crime and disease the world is a cruel place, but also one that lets us appreciate good fortune. Let your children learn about current events at their own speed, ready all the while to answer questions as they arise.

5. Let your children learn from an elder's perspective: Asian cultures in particular tend to value the wisdom of the elderly, who by virtue of their years can offer longer perspectives on the ups and downs of life. Let your children benefit from the advice and seasoned experience of their grandparents and other family members with "the long view" in mind.