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The Angle, November 2018 – Gratitude: A Habit Worth Learning Early

It’s right there in the name of November’s centerpiece holiday: Thanksgiving. The holiday was created around the idea of gratitude, and most of our modern traditions still focus on giving thanks around a communal meal. Gratitude is a quality that deserves attention all year long, and it’s one elemental enough for even very young children to understand. Taking a cue from the name of this historic holiday, we thought we’d examine and reflect upon the ways we can teach our young children to pause and appreciate the positive in all our lives.

Gratitude is embedded in everything

Cultivating the ability to appreciate—and show appreciation for—good fortune, the kindness of others, or whatever adds value to our world, is an investment that will pay dividends throughout an entire life.

One of the all-time most-viewed TED Talks features positive psychology expert Shawn Achor talking about the “secret” to happiness. In the video, he presents a list of five simple ways to increase our experience of happiness: at the top of the list is . . . you guessed it . . . gratitude. Achor suggests finding three things each day for which you are grateful—this practice interrupts any negativity in our minds, softens our hearts to those around us, and results in a healthier, positive mindset.

Introducing Young Children to the Concept

Like many recommended activities that we know are good for us, it can take some effort to establish a regular practice of gratitude. You may be thinking: “If it’s a challenge for adults, how can children—or even toddlers—develop this healthy habit?!”

As with most lessons we impart to our children, this one begins with modeling behavior. Beginning at birth, children look to the adults around them—family, caregivers, teachers, and other role models—for clues to how to think and behave. When we present an “attitude of gratitude,” it demonstrates how to look at the world.

Mindfulness: A Tool for both Young and Old

Mindfulness is a powerful concept, one whose myriad benefits include eliminating the “noise” of everyday life to access a renewed sense of gratitude. The two are connected when we use meditation and mindfulness training to create a calm emotional state where one can focus on identifying what she or he is grateful for. Effective mindfulness strategies work the same way in children as in adults: to relieve stress, promote happiness, and control emotions.

We asked children’s mental health specialist Ruby Velasco how to begin mindfulness training with toddlers and preschoolers. “It’s important to remember that mindfulness and meditation are two separate things,” cautions Velasco. “Mindfulness is about focusing and knowing where our mind is in the moment; meditation is the practice to achieve that goal of mindfulness; breathing is the core” of this strategy.

Please DO Try This at Home

Since it’s often challenging—even for adults—to concentrate on solo breathing exercises, we can look to strategies for teaching emotional self-regulation that have proven effective with very young children. Often the same techniques that work to diffuse rising negative emotions by promoting a meditative state will successfully facilitate the search for gratitude.

Begin with the easiest exercises parents and children can learn to help bring calm and focus. Many adults will recognize these strategies from their own yoga or meditation practice: Press your feet into the ground. Place one hand on your stomach to feel your breathing. Tighten all your muscles; then release.

Look into your child’s eyes to practice deep-breathing exercises together, and soon you can progress to incorporating the concept of gratitude. Instead of a repeated mantra, make an expression of thanks a regular part of your mindfulness experience: “I’m grateful for the sun shining today.” “I’m thankful my puppy likes me to pet him.” “I’m thankful for my family.”  No matter how big, or small, we will always have things to recount that we are grateful for.

…and soon enough, every day will be Thanksgiving!

Return to The Angle, November 2018