Sometimes our kids seem like little consumption gremlins. They eat up our food, time, money, energy and most of our other valuable resources (seemingly) without any recognition that they’ve left us empty-handed. How do we get them to cough up one measly, “Thank you”? Better yet, how do we actually get them to feel grateful?
Jeffrey Froh, a professor from Hofstra University, ran a study on how to increase gratitude and unselfish behavior in junior high and high school students. He based this study on the work of Robert Emmons of the University of California. Emmons had college students write a gratitude journal everyday. They listed the items and events that they appreciated in their lives–many things that, prior to beginning this journal, they might not have realized.
Despite its simplicity, Emmon’s study was a success. Most college students reported an increase in happiness and overall gratefulness.
Yet when Froh repeated the study with teenagers, he found that the results were less than satisfactory. Teens did not seem improve in their ability to appreciate what they had and their happiness did not necessarily increase.
Although frustrated with the results, the study did shed light on areas of child and teen development.
Po Bronson in the article Why Counting Blessings Is So Hard for Teenagers comments:
Parents and teachers need to recognize that being grateful, and being a teenager, are often diametrically opposed. To be a teenager—in the classic sense—means expressing a fundamental desire to individuate from one’s family. This is not unhealthy behavior; it’s completely normal. They are soon to be independent adults, and they need to take themselves for test-drives. Pushing parents away, and wanting things to be none of your business, and exhibiting total ignorance of all you’ve done for them, are all behaviors that conjure independence. Asking them to be grateful—and wishing they’d be more aware of how their success is due to you—is difficult for them to feel at the same time as they’re trying to get out from under your thumb. Thus grateful teenagers are rare, not the norm.
In his book Nurture Shock, he further states:
For kids with a strong need for autonomy and independence, it might be demoralizing to recognize how much they are dependent upon grownups. They might already feel like adults are pulling all the strings in their lives-controlling what they eat, what they study, what they’re allowed to wear, and who they hang out with. And they’d rather feel self-reliant than beholden. Their sense of independence might be an illusion, but it’s necessary illusion for the psychological balance and future growth into genuine independence. Their lack of gratitude might be the way they maintain the illusion that they are in control of their own lives.
Froh thinks this might be the key to his study’s failure. His intervention led those children to realize just how much of their lives depended on someone else’s whim or sacrifice. They didn’t feel happy that people were always there doing things for them. Instead, it made them feel powerless.
There is still hope. You teach your children how to be grateful. Michael C. Bradley, in his book, Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy, assures parents that your morals, values and ethics become an integral part of your child’s psychological makeup. If you have been imparting good values to your children they will stay with him for the rest of his life. During adolescence, “[they] may have put [your values] in cold storage…but they’re there and they will reappear in time.”
To teach our children the value of gratefulness, we, quite simply (but perhaps not easily) must be sure we are modeling that behavior.
Children need to see us being grateful for what we have. That might mean not running out to buy the trendiest pocketbook or newest electronic gadget. Let them see you saying thank you to the postman, the store clerk and your friends.
Tell them, “I am so grateful to have you in my life.” If that is too corny for you, you can say, (when they come home from school), “It’s good to see you!” Let them see you and your spouse thank each other. Thank your spouse for making dinner, for taking out the garbage, cleaning a clogged drain or for making the phone call to Aunt Ethel, something you really didn’t want to do.
Don’t complain about all the things you don’t have.
Write a gratitude journal and tell them about it in a non-confrontational, friendly way.
Enjoy the beauty around you and point it out to your children. Sunsets, the sun shining on the snow, laughing babies and blossoming trees.
Understanding child/teen development and their limitations gives us insights into their frustrating but necessary behavior. Being grateful for what we have is one of the secrets of successful living. Fostering gratefulness in ourselves will enhance our family life and give our children the direction they need to cultivate their own happiness.
Bradley, M. (2003). Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy. WA: Harbor Press.
Bronson, P. , Merryman A.(2009). Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children. Hatchette Book Group: NY Bronson, P. , Merryman A. (Nov. 2009).
Why Counting Blessings Is So Hard for Teenagers. Newsweek blog. Retrieved 2/23/10
More tips on engaging your teen’s cooperation in How to Give Your Kids the Right Dose of Independence.
Adina Soclof, MS. CCC-SLP, works as a Parent Educator for Bellefaire Jewish Children’s Bureau facilitating How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk workshops as well as workshops based on Siblings Without Rivalry. Adina also runs parentingsimply.com.