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One Life Lesson My Father Taught Me: How Gratitude Really Works

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I learnt so much about gratitude from my father, who, to this day, is the most optimistic person I know. When I was growing up he would bounce out of bed every morning, whistling at the top of his voice.  He would make eggs for breakfast while saying, “What a wonderful day!”  He would say this, regardless of whether the sun was shining or it was overcast. 

You can imagine how incredibly annoying that was for a teen, especially a teen who didn’t like eggs!

My father is still able to turn something small and insignificant into a life changing opportunity.  He can walk past a flower and spend 5 minutes talking about it’s colour. He can come into my home while I am cooking, and make me feel like a five star chef.  He can ‘talk up’ anything!

Optimism is a shield which does come more naturally to some than others.

Although my father often works in third world countries and stays in unhygienic conditions, he is always able to ‘hold’ his happiness.  The smile never disappears and nor does his vest for life.  Our Facetime calls are always filled with stories of wonderful people he has met and experiences he has had, even if he hasn’t eaten or had access to clean water.

In the same way that anxiety magnifies the negatives, gratitude magnifies the positives.  As parent, we can teach our children to exaggerate the right things, rather than dismiss them.  If they love a colour, love it hard. If they enjoyed a meal, give their parent a hug in appreciation.  If they achieved something meaningful, shout loudly about it.

Leaning into gratitude makes the positives big enough to have an impact on us.  Gratitude can turn every situation into a wonderful experience if we connect with it on a heart level.  Only then can take the beauty in every moment and allow it to take centre stage. 

Not all of our children are blessed with a strong innate ability to see a ‘glass half full’. Some young people have a genetically lower happiness ‘set point’ than others, and will therefore tend to see the negatives more easily. However, there are specific things we can do to help them along the way.

Intentionally injecting gratitude into our children’s daily schedules can create routines that will stay with them for life. And although they do have a choice as to whether they adopt their routines themselves, and allow them to hard wire their brain, modelling gratitude gives them every opportunity to do this.

Bed time, meal time, travel time and technology time are all good times to boost gratitude. With practice, these can become times that our children anticipate and even enjoy.

Here are some suggestions as a starting point:

Bedtime. Too often our children go to bed de-briefing about their daily problems instead of counting their blessings. Ideally, we should go to bed at night spending 5 to 15 minutes naming our blessings and thinking of the people, places, things and experiences that are beautiful in our lives. This enables our brains to be trained on a daily basis to see what is in our hands and at our disposal.

Meal time. Helen, mother of four daughters, explains how her family uses mealtime to practice gratitude. ‘We have a family habit of going around each person at the dinner table (we have four daughters; 9, 11, 14, 16) and saying ‘what went well today?’ It causes a sudden shift in everyone’s attitudes, from the whining of ‘this totally stank today’, to seeing that good did happen. My girls need to see that they can always find something to be grateful for. It also helps us celebrate wins with each other. We find the days where we don’t do this our home seems to be a more self-focused, negative environment.’

Travel time. Before the music goes on in the car, ask your child to ‘tell me some things that went well today’, ‘tell me about a person you admire’, ‘talk to me about three beautiful things in your life’ or ‘talk to me about something that you are looking forward to’.

Quiet time. Daily journaling is also powerful, especially if you are answering questions like ‘if I woke up today with only the things I was grateful for yesterday, what would I wake up with?’ Dream boards are another beautiful way to express gratitude and hope for the future. Gratitude walls, in the form of a blackboard in the kitchen or meal area, are another way for families to express gratitude. These are places for children to collate images, ideas and quotes that are great visual reminders that their lives are valuable and blessed.

Technology time. There are so many gratitude apps for smartphones that are excellent for kickstarting gratitude. They operate on the premise that if you are able to reflect in detail on the things you are grateful for each day, it will help you savour positive events and appreciate good things. I wish every teacher would inject this into their daily classroom routine, as I feel it is great use of educational time.

I’ve also included a list of gratitude boosting apps your child might like using:

  • The Resilience Project
  • Smiling Mind
  • Headspace: Guided Meditation
  • Gratitude Journal
  • Gratitude Diary
  • Live Happy
  • Gratitude Stream

RECOMMENDED READING: For more, check out Michelle’s book Everyday Resilience: Helping Kids Handle Friendship Drama, Academic Pressure and the Self-doubt of Growing Up.

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