By Diane Turner Maller
Cultivating an attitude of gratitude demands a year-round commitment. We can muster up grateful platitudes once a year for a Thanksgiving holiday dinner yet yearn to dig deeper when tired expressions no longer ring true with the actual experience of our personal and family lives.
Most of us need to experience loss and disappointment as impetus for finding an authentic sense of gratitude. Too often, we don’t really appreciate something until it is gone.
When I lost a husband and my children lost their father, at ages 12 and 14; our family hit a low point from which we needed to heal. Somehow, we muddled through the grieving process. There were times when we thrashed and grasped at finding something to be thankful for. We were reaching for a life raft. The act of reaching for the ring of gratitude was a necessary part of grieving. Work and time was required to make the transformation, to shift; to move away from the heavy, painful feelings to something lighter, something brighter. Comforting holidays with family were instrumental in moving this process along.
In Maya Angelou’s last memoir, Mom & Me & Mom, she described a point in her life where she was confused and disoriented. Her voice teacher, Wilkie, was the one who was finally able to help her. Exacerbated, he ordered her to sit down and said, “I want you to write down your blessings.” He prompted, “…think of the millions of people all over the world who cannot hear a choir, or symphony, or their own babies crying. Write down, ‘I can hear—Thank God.’”
She wrote down the basics:
I can hear.
I can see.
I can speak.
I have a son.
I have a mother.
I have a brother.
I can dance.
I can sing.
I can cook.
I can read.
I can write.
This seemingly simple exercise allowed Maya Angelou, in that moment, to experience the transformation that she so desperately needed. She recounted, “From that encounter on, whether my days are stormy or sunny and if my nights are glorious or lonely, I maintain an attitude of gratitude. If pessimism insists on occupying my thoughts, I remember there is always tomorrow. Today I am blessed.”
The littlest things that we do with heart and humility serve to lay the foundation for creating a thankful home, a thankful family, and a thankful child. Best practices for cultivating gratitude include every-day things.
Be thankful for every meal. Rekindle a tried and true traditional “grace” or create for the first time a simple blessing to be used at mealtime. This may take some experimentation and repetition in order to find the most meaningful practice for your family.
Most kids don’t see an example of other families saying grace while dining at Subway or Burger King. In more public settings, a short period of silence might be the trick to acknowledge thankfulness. On the other hand, your family may be comfortable sharing your blessing in any setting, whether at home, the park, or your favorite fast food venue.
The power of gratitude was strikingly displayed in the film, The Blind Side. The scene depicting Michael Oher sitting alone at the table in honest gratitude for the well prepared meal before him was set in stirring contrast to the privileged family too distracted and consumed by the football game to give any thought to the food that they took for granted. It was Michael’s example that brought the rest of the family back to the table.
Keep a gratitude journal. Creating a journal is an intimate activity to share with your children. The empty page is there to capture creativity and becomes a rich canvas for recording and fostering the developing appreciation of gratitude.
Provide the tools, give examples, make lists, and ask thought provoking questions.
What are you thankful for today? What did you see or hear someone else do that was helpful?
How do you know when someone really means what they say? Be ready to respond to questions from your children that contribute to a continuing dialogue.
Remember to say “thank you.” Saying thank you to acquaintances or strangers may feel more natural than saying thank you to your closest family members; the ones who are most easily taken for granted. The familiar social conventions of please and thank you that we teach our children and that we have practiced for a lifetime have a way of creating a safe, courteous distance.
In contrast, a simple, sincere “thank you” said when a spouse brings over a cup of coffee can become an opportunity for emotional intimacy. A sibling can offer thanks for homework help that neutralizes the effects of a previous conflict. Unexpected moments of true gratitude bring heightened awareness of important changes in the people around us.
Read stories about perseverance and overcoming hardship. The winter that my children and I read through Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series was a cozy opportunity to become acquainted with the indomitable spirit of pioneer families who ventured west and whose courage and perseverance shaped a country. If Laura and her family could live through hardship with grace and gratitude then we can too.
Be kind to yourself. Thank yourself for doing your best. Your children will notice.
Be of service. Participate in service projects as a family. The good feelings that result rub off onto your children and soon they could be the ones who are looking for ways to help.
Nurturing gratitude throughout the year is the best preparation for celebrating the once a year Thanksgiving Holiday. Embrace the day with gusto. Put up the pilgrim and turkey decorations. Gather with family for a delicious feast and celebrate joys as well as hardships. Turn on the football game. Make the most of traditions from the past and create new ones just for your family. And, as always, count your blessings.