“Thank you, Mommy, for turning on the light.” “Thank you, Mommy, for making me dinner.” “Thank you, Mommy, for changing my diaper.” Those sweet, unprompted words of my then 2½-year-old son still make my heart smile. He regularly voiced his appreciativeness for my help, much to my delight. Gratitude came naturally to my keenly observant towhead, and still does. If only everyone were so thankful, I’ve thought more than once, the world would be a better place. It turns out research backs this up. Studies show that grateful people are more content, are less materialistic, have stronger relationships, and “are more pleasant to be around,” says Robert Emmons, author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. “Gratitude is literally one of the few things that can measurably change peoples’ lives,” Emmons says. Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, agrees. His decades of research names gratitude as one of the top three traits that predict a person’s level of well-being. (The other two are hope and a love of learning.) A person who scores high in these areas experiences more satisfaction in life. And thankfully (pun intended) gratitude can be taught. All too often people are tuned into the negative and don’t practice gratitude. Benjamin Hardy, bestselling author of Willpower Doesn’t Work, explains it this way: He could buy a candy bar for his son, only to have his son say it wasn’t the right kind. Rather than being grateful, the boy “only noticed that the thing wasn’t what it could have been. He didn’t realize that he just gained something. He only saw the gap. Most people live their entire lives in the gap.” Instead people should “live in the gain,” a concept Hardy attributes to Dan Sullivan, founder of The Strategic Coach. How? “Rather than measuring yourself against your ideals, you measure yourself against where you were before,” Hardy says. People who live in the gap focus on outcomes; what went wrong in the past; and their current circumstances. Gap residents have a fixed mindset, i.e. they tell themselves things can’t change. Those who live in the gain, on the other hand, focus on their progress; what they learned from past experiences; and their future, possible circumstances. They maintain a growth mindset, i.e. they realize they can change things for the better.
It’s human nature to focus on the negative. Many people don’t even realize how often they fall into this trap. The habit also makes it easy to forget positive things that happen. Changing such entrenched behavior takes conscious effort. Children need help learning the skill of recognizing gap thinking and replacing it with gain thinking.
If your homeschooler scored poorly on a math exam, for example, it doesn’t mean he stinks at math and is doomed to struggle with the subject. If he didn’t kick a goal in a soccer game, it doesn’t mean he’s no good at sports. Such experiences don’t have to define your child. Instead, help him think of ways he can improve, then put those ideas into action.
And be honest with yourself: Which is your default, gap or gain? Either way you’re modeling it for your child. If you want your youngster to change his approach, you may have to work on changing your own as well.
“Getting rid of what we don’t want in our lives [like gap thinking] doesn’t automatically bring about what we do want,” says James Pawelski, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “You have to intentionally plant and cultivate what you do want.”
One way to do that with your child is to talk about a time when he felt grateful. Have him describe it in detail, savoring the moment.
Another way is to hunt the good stuff, i.e. purposefully look for the positives, says Dr. Karen Reivich of the Penn Positive Psychology Center. Start each day with your child telling what went well yesterday and why. Ask how he can contribute to more of the same today. Also, Reivich recommends keeping a gratitude journal. Every day write three things for which you’re grateful, why the events happened, and what they mean to you.
Taking time to teach your child gratitude is worth the daily effort. It’ll boost his (and your) sense of well-being, foster contentment, and strengthen your family relationships. Now that’s something to be thankful for!