As the parents of two adolescent boys, my husband, Gordon, and I generally alternate between pride and dismay at their behavior. Mostly we get to see the good stuff, I’m glad to say. But lately the scales have begun to tip toward disappointment in one area. Will, 13, and Griffin, 11, seem to appreciate the big things we give them (the new bike, the iPod, the Hawaii vacation). But their day-to-day comments have started sounding increasingly demanding and — I hate to say it — entitled:
“Mom, I need help with my homework — NOW.”
“Ewww, that looks disgusting. I’m not eating it.”
“I’m not going to visit Gramma Dee. You can’t make me.”
I don’t expect my sons to be selfless saints, but I’d like them to understand how fortunate they are and to recognize the contributions that other people (including Gordon and me) make to their lives. We already say grace, albeit speedily, before meals. But are there other ways we can teach our kids to be more grateful?
Yes, says Jeffrey Froh, PsyD, an assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. His research shows there are plenty of good reasons to try. He recently asked one group of middle school students to list up to five things they were grateful for every day for two weeks, while a second group recorded daily hassles and a third only completed a survey. “The gratitude group experienced a jump in optimism and overall well-being,” reports Froh. “Furthermore, they were more satisfied with school even three weeks later.” Likewise, a Harris Interactive survey of more than 1,200 kids between the ages of 8 and 18 found that those who were grateful for what they had were also more generous, even if they were fairly materialistic.
Inspired by these findings, Gordon and I decided to try a gratitude intervention of our own. Here’s what we did, and what happened.
Learning to Express Gratitude
The strategy: Openly express our own gratitude, and praise the kids when they try to follow suit. “The first step to changing kids’ behavior is being good role models,” says Froh.
We ease into our get-more-grateful regimen over pancakes and fruit early one morning, when Gordon declares, “Thank you for the delicious breakfast, Gin.” The boys, still half asleep, munch in silence for a minute or two, then Will, the more emotionally clued-in of our kids, rouses himself and comes out with, “Yeah, thanks, Mom. Good eats.” His comment gives me the opportunity to reinforce his effort. “That’s nice of you to say, Will,” I reply.
Over the next few days I realize that although I thought I was pretty good about saying thank you, I miss opportunities all the time — to Gordon for a quick neck rub, after the woman at the deli hands me my tea, when the UPS guy drops off a package. One night after Griffin hangs up his wet towel I kiss him on the head and tell him, “Thanks, Sweetie.” Then I wonder: Should you thank kids for doing things they should be doing anyway?
Absolutely, is Froh’s answer. “Saying thank you is a great way to reinforce a positive behavior,” he adds. Even these small changes seem to make a difference with the boys. Already we’ve moved the gratitude needle. They’re saying thank you more often.
Why Gratitude Is Important
Will is immersed in a big homework project, and I’m helping him. We finish up at about 10:30 p.m. We’re both exhausted. “You know, Will, you could say thank you,” I peevishly blurt out. “Thanks, Mom,” he replies sarcastically.
I want to blow up, but I bite my tongue. When I tell Froh about it, he says, “It’s important to help kids understand the cost to the person who helped them and the benefit to themselves.” On his suggestion, the next day I say to Will, “I was disappointed you didn’t seem more grateful after I helped you with your homework. I could have been doing other things during that time — and it would have taken you even longer if I hadn’t helped.”
Will, to his credit, gets it: “Sorry, Mom,” he says. “I am grateful. I was just being a jerk because I was tired.”
Wow! I’m blown away. I can’t believe how well that worked.
Write Down What You Appreciate Every Day
The strategy: Every night write down what we appreciated that day — an approach that many studies have shown leads to positive change.
We quickly find that writing things down feels forced, so we simplify it, spending five minutes before bed talking about the day. Will’s comments are sincere — “I’m grateful that Nathan [his teacher] let me go on the field trip even though I didn’t turn in my permission slip on time.” Griffin, on the other hand, often tosses off a no-brainer — “I’m grateful to you and Dad for being my parents” — or makes silly jokes like “I’m grateful for doors because we wouldn’t be able to get into our house without them.”
Not surprisingly, wisecracks are common among kids who aren’t comfortable expressing their emotions. “It takes effort to come up with something sincere,” says Froh. I decide to offer my son some coaching. The next night I say, “Hey, Griff, it was nice of Timon’s mom to take you guys to the Exploratorium today.” He says, “Oh, yeah. I’m grateful to Anja. That was fun.” Not exactly an emotional outpouring, but it’s a start.
Send Thank-You Notes
The strategy: Write appreciative letters to the important people in our lives. “Acknowledging your feelings on paper makes them more conscious and concrete,” says Robert Emmons, PhD, author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton Mifflin).
A confession: I have always been terrible at this task, and equally bad about making the boys do it. So when I sit down with them one Saturday afternoon for this exercise, I feel like I’m paying penance.
And my sons do make me pay. “Mom, do we haaaave to?” asks Griffin plaintively. “Yeah, c’mon Mom. It’s so nice outside. Can’t we do this some other time?” asks Will.
After a good 15 minutes of sulking, they finally start scribbling. Griffin writes a note to my father, who is hosting us for a holiday ski vacation. His letter is short, but he embellishes it with a nice drawing of a skier cruising down a steep slope; Grandpa will love it. Will writes to a friend’s mom, who often brings him a snack when she picks him up after school.
They bolt out the door as soon as they’re done, leaving paper and colored pencils scattered all over the table. I’d like to say the hassle was worth the reward, but I’m not sure.
Give to Others
The strategy: Volunteer as a family at a local charity. “Showing privileged kids that everyone doesn’t have the same advantages makes them more appreciative,” says Jean Fitzpatrick, a pastoral psychotherapist in New York City.
We sign up to help serve soup to the homeless at a local church. The first night our sons are terrified. The moment we arrive, they make a beeline for the kitchen, where they stay all night doing dishes. (Even though it’s the chore they hate at home.) “That was really scary,” says Will afterward. “Are those guys dangerous?”
We explain to the boys that most homeless people are harmless and are just down on their luck. The next week, however, they’re both still sticking close to Gordon and me. But finally, during our third visit, they venture into the dining room and talk with some of the guys there. One man pulls out a guitar and another has some bongo drums, and they begin playing. Will and Griff hang out and chat with them between songs.
That night I go into their room for our things-we’re-grateful-for routine, and find them intent on pulling out toy after toy from an old bin. “What are you doing making such a mess at this hour?” I ask, unable to conceal my irritation.
Will looks up at me, surprised. “Jeez, Mom, chill. We’re getting some toys together to give to kids who don’t have as many as we do.” I slink away to get some bags, feeling guilty and proud in equal measure.
A few days later, Griff and I are in the car when he says, “Quick! Roll down the window! There’s Jose, one of the homeless guys!” We slow down and call out a hello to Jose, then Griff says, “I hope he has a place to sleep tonight.”
“Me, too, Honey,” I say.
“You know, Mom, we’re really lucky,” he says authoritatively.