Teacher Talk: Evoking Gratitude on all the other days
As we recover from American Thanksgiving, it's a time to be aware of the things for which we are grateful. But how do we "teach" a virtue that we hope will come from within? As with all of the Montessori environment, we do so authentically and in a way that reflects what we know about children's development.
For toddlers, modeling gratitude sets the foundation for children to express it themselves later. Teaching and parenting toddlers is all about modeling the care and attention we want children to absorb. Adult talk matters, even with preverbal children. When your child, in the course of his or her play, brings you an object, offer a gentle, "Thank you for bringing me _________." Children will adopt the language of gratitude before they are able to experience the emotion. It's important, then, that the modeling be authentic. Make eye contact when you say, "Thank you." Smile and offer a warm response. Your child will come to associate that warmth with the generous actions. What parent's heart hasn't melted the first time their child offers an exuberant, "Thank you, Mommy!" or "Thank you, Dada!" While your child may not fully understand the consideration from others that precedes gratitude in ourselves, she or he will learn the social norms that accompany that gratitude.
For early childhood children, model gratitude and offer time for reflection. We know that children are egocentric until about seven years old. This doesn't mean, though, that they're selfish jerks who never think of other people! When child development experts talk about egocentrism in young children, they're describing a cognitive phenomenon during which children are unable to adopt the perspective of others. Limited in their experiences and not yet able to fully see themselves as separate individuals, children experience the world as it affects them and generalize that experience to other people. It's why, when you're sad, your child brings you his or her favorite cuddly instead of a cup of tea. Because children know what would comfort them, they believe that that's what would comfort other people, too.
Their developmentally appropriate egocentrism aside, though, children are able to identify the people who have been kind to them, offering parents authentic opportunities to demonstrate gratitude. Consider creating a dinner time routine that includes each family member talking about someone who was kind to them that day. Or as you are winding down at bedtime, talk with your child explicitly about the times when people were kind to you and ask your child about times when others were kind to him or her. Model language that acknowledges that kindness. " I am always so grateful to Amy when she brings me warm coffee at my desk. She knows that I can sometimes get absorbed in my work and I am thankful that she cares for me. Is there someone who helped to care for you today?" Remember, then, that your child needs more time to process and answer than you might. Let them think. If your child says, " I don't know," or, "No," ask if you might help think through the day to find people who were kind. "First, we went to school. I remember Mrs. Dagnall helped to open the car door in carline and she held it steady for you as you left the car. That was so kind of her!" or " I heard Mr. Marks sat with you on the playground today when you were feeling angry. I am thankful that he kept you company then." These should be quiet, thoughtful times, not punitive ones. Avoid forcing your child to identify people who were kind (indeed- doing so will cause enough stress that it may actually make it harder to think of anyone!) and, instead, model reflecting on your day together and noticing the people who helped to make it happen.
For older children, model, reflect and engage children in acts of gratitude. Continue making eye contact when you say, "Thank you," and modeling thankfulness in your own life. Continue your evening routines that allow time to reflect together about the ways in which other people help us each day. Engage your child in more explicit expressions of thankfulness. Opportunities for gift-giving, for example, like birthdays or holidays, are ways in which we demonstrate gratitude for other people. When you're preparing to give a gift, sit down with your child to think about the recipient together. List some things about that person for which you are grateful. List some things you know about that person that suggest what he or she appreciates or enjoys. Then brainstorm gifts that would be a good match for the person. When you give a gift that has thoughtfully considered the recipient, you model for your children a focus on the person instead of the product. Bring your child with you to select the present, reminding him or her that you are going to choose something for someone else, not purchasing things for yourselves. Let them wrap the gift and write a handwritten note. Encourage them to write descriptive notes that acknowledge what they are grateful for in their relationship with the recipient.
For preteens and teens, model, reflect, engage and connect your child to service driven by their own values. Older children and teens have a strong sense of social justice and an awareness of how disparities in their communities leave some people privileged and others overlooked. Support their civic engagement by helping them to identify service organizations that are matched to the causes they hold dear. Remember that these may not be the same as yours. So, if your child is concerned with neglected animals, help him or her to find a shelter at which to serve. If your child is concerned with issues of race and equity, connect them to a nonprofit engaged in advocacy. While it's important that they see you serve as well, and while you should serve as a family, it's equally important that they recognize that you support and value the ways in which they want to change the world. Engaging in regular service provides a rich context for youth to understand exactly what it is they may be grateful for in their own lives.
Finally, as adults, choose gratitude in your own life. When we model gratefulness for our children, we benefit from its demonstration in ourselves. Slow down. Make eye contact with that store clerk or gas attendant who is helping you through your day. Put away your phone at check-out and say, "Thank you," to the person who is helping you. Remember the Ram Dass quote, "We are all just walking each other home." We are gifted, throughout each day, with friends and strangers who make that walk a little easier, sometimes in the big ways and sometimes in just helping us through the minutia of the day to day. The best way to evoke gratitude in your children is to enact it yourself.