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Cultivating an attitude of gratitude

November 23, 2011 - Betsy Bethel
What's the difference between saying "thank you" and showing gratitude?

From the time they can talk, we teach our children to say "thank you" when someone says something nice to them, does something for them or gives something to them. "What do you say?" is the obligatory parental admonition if our children are silent when a "thank you" is in order.

What's wrong with this picture?

Well, as Mary O'Donohue, author of "When You Say 'Thank You,' Mean It" notes, after her 5-year-old was clearly ungrateful for the gift of a T-shirt from a grown-up: "It bothered me for days before I had an epiphany. We'd never actually taught our son to be thankful. Not once. All we had ever done was to TRAIN him to ACT thankful. In terms of true gratitude, we hadn't even scratched the surface."

So what IS the difference? I think gratitude is something that is felt deep down in your heart. It is this feeling of gratefulness that wells up in us and spurs us to express our thanks with words and actions. So we can teach our children to say "thank you," but how do we teach them to be truly grateful?

O'Donohue, a Chicago mom of two, started by examining her children's attitudes for a few days to see "where they were in terms of being grateful." She noticed sometimes her children appeared to feel grateful but stayed silent, and other times they said "thank you" with no emotion. "There clearly was a disconnect," she said.

She and her husband consequently developed a month-long program to teach their children gratitude. It was the first of 12 month-long lessons they came up with to make an INTENTIONAL effort to instill values in their children — the other months included a sense of joy, compassion and respect for others. Modeling and talking about values are great starts, but miss the mark, O'Donohue said.

During Gratitude Month, the family set up a Graditude Board, a large sheet of poster board on which each member of the family wrote one thing he or she is grateful for at the end of every day. On good days, O'Donohue says, the exercise will be easy. On bad days, encourage your children to find one positive thing that happened in spite of everything else.

Once a week during Gratitude Month, the O'Donohues practiced the Rewind exercise, the goal of which is for children to understand what it truly means to receive. They taught their daughter and son to imagine the whole process involved when someone purchases or gives them a gift, not just the end result of the gift itself. For example, the person searched for it, maybe examined and compared it with other possibilities, chose it specifically for him or her, stood in line, paid for it, wrapped it and presented it. Rewinding the process helps children see the effort involved.

"The point of this month is not about teaching kids to be grateful for 'things' but rather to help them be grateful for the time, the kindness, the work and the thoughtfulness that is BEHIND the things. That's the part that really matters," O'Donohue writes. In short, it really is the thought that counts.

Finally, O'Donohue suggests a one-time exercise for Gratitude Month called "The Thanks for Nothin' Letter." At the end of the month, she had her children write a thank-you letter — not the standard thank-you note, although those are good, too! The thank-you letter "is not acknowledging a 'thing.' It is acknowledging a person, and how grateful we are to have them in our lives," O'Donohue writes. The letter is a "just because" gesture that could be written to anyone the child chooses. Her children wrote them to their teachers.

"Writing a simple thank-you letter in any format may seem like a small thing, but it encourages your children to be aware that they are receiving great gifts on a daily basis. Gifts of kindness, consideration, patience, humor and wisdom. It is so each to miss these, especially since we are living in such a consumer-oriented society where children are encouraged to want one 'thing' after another," she writes.

I know in my house, the "thank-yous" may be frequent but the expression of genuine gratitude is lacking. If I want that to change, then I can't just go on doing what I've been doing and "hoping" for it to happen. That would be counter-productive if not crazy. Einstein said it best, that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

I can't think of a better time to start instilling an attitude of gratitude than Thanksgiving. For we have so much for which to be grateful.


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