In truth, O judges, while I wish to be adorned with every virtue, yet there is nothing which I can esteem more highly than the being and appearing grateful. For this one virtue is not only the greatest, but is also the parent of all the other virtues.
– Cicero, Pro Plancio (54 BC)
Thanksgiving is such a wonderful holiday. It’s a time when we stop, gather with loved ones, and reflect on what we are thankful for. It always serves to remind me of how powerful gratitude is and how we often wished we offered it more in our daily lives. For us as parents and educators, our first focus is always on our children and students, so the season often makes us think about what we can do to support the character development of our youth.
What Is Gratitude and Why Is It Important?
We all understand that gratitude is feeling or showing thanks, but Dr. Robert Emmons, a leading expert in the study of gratitude, provides us a more involved meaning that I especially like. Dr. Emmons believes that gratitude has two key components: (1) “It’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good thing in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received” and (2) “We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves…I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.” [Emphasis mine.]
Why is gratitude such a desired quality? Foremost, we recognize that it is essential to our children’s moral development. It provides us additional gifts beyond goodness though. Some studies suggest that individuals who regularly practice gratitude also receive physical, psychological, and social benefits. Gratitude seems to make us happier, more resilient, strengthen our immune system, more stress-resistant, more compassionate, and more forgiving. There are even studies that suggest gratitude makes students feel better about school!
The Threat to Gratitude
In a recent survey, 10,000 middle and high school students were asked to rank which of the following was most important to them: High-level achievement, Happiness, or Caring for others. An alarming 80% reported “high-level achievement” or “happiness” as their top priority, while only 20% said ranked “caring for others” as their number one. This level of self-interest is disconcerting, as is their perception. The children’s values reflect what they perceive their parents’ values are. While we know parents value character development for their children, students were 3x more likely to agree than disagree with the statement: “My parents are prouder if I get good grades than if I’m a caring community member.”
Raising Grateful Children
All children are born with the capacity for empathy and gratitude, but these virtues needs to be nurtured. It is helpful to think about moral development the same way we do intellectual development. We need to provide children opportunities, practice and guidance in developing their gratitude capacities, just as we regularly do with throwing a baseball, playing the violin, learning long division, or writing multi-paragraph essays. Our children don’t just wake up one day at a certain age as compassionate, grateful and kind individuals when. We have to help them develop generosity and care, and one way to that is by being consistent role models ourselves.
In a recent Washington Post article, Dr. Richard Weissbourd offers parents three suggestions for the holiday season.
1. Have a gratitude action. Ask your children to think about someone outside their family who has helped them. While it’s important to be thankful for our family and friends, it’s also important that we help children zoom out beyond their normal circle of concern. Prompt them to think about who and what else they are grateful for. Consider the range of people they interact with everyday. Then, help them think of a way to express their appreciation. This can take the form of a verbal thank you, a note, a gift, or an offer to help.
2. Commit to a service or organization as a family. My favorite part of this suggestion is the as a family provision. As a family, discuss what you most care about and then find how you can support an organization that serves that cause. Another key part of your family plan is that is should include a promise to do something monthly. Volunteering once can be helpful and educational but usually these organizations and individuals need support all year-round. It’s meaningful to show children that being grateful and empathetic is always important, not just during the holidays.
3. Don’t inundate kids with gifts. When children receive too many gifts, it tends to weaken appreciation. Also, kids often assume that gifts from family don’t require a thank you, but kids of any age should express thanks whenever they receive a gift.
Specific Thanksgiving Resources
Many families have their own routine for giving thanks at Thanksgiving. It often takes the form of a prayer or moment during the meal when everyone stops eating and we go around the table sharing what we are thankful for this year. These are special, meaningful moments and I’d like to share a few additional options that come from a wonderful nonprofit, The Family Dinner Project, that focuses on the benefits of family dinner. They’ve created a great list of games and conversation starters for use at Thanksgiving. I especially like the Conversation Cards and Place Cards ideas! These resources are fun, engaging and best of all, help all of us to structure what gratitude looks, sounds and feels like.
What I’m Thankful For
My list is especially long this year. When my wife and I sit down for Thanksgiving, I will be sharing profusely about Assets School. I am extremely grateful to be a part of this extraordinary community and for the many people who have made me feel so welcomed. I’m grateful to work with an incredible group of talented and dedicated educators, and with a parent community so supportive and caring. And of course, I am boundlessly appreciative to work with our students, who are the most courageous and creative young people I know.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone,