Photo: Little girl volunteering with her family

Aspirations Journalism: Make gratitude a family value, not holiday entertainment

Posted on January 15, 2020 by Kim Doleatto, Herald-Tribune Media Group

Tips on teaching gratitude to children, all year long.

For some families, volunteering during the holidays is a tradition. But not all traditions are helpful, despite good intentions.

At One Hopeful Place, a homeless shelter in Fort Walton Beach, volunteer applications “increase exponentially, spiking from three to four to more than 100 a month during the holiday season,” said Nathan Monk, executive director of the shelter. He’s been working with nonprofits for 15 years and recently authored the book “Charity Means Love: Transforming the Culture of How we Give.”

Popular motives he hears from parents every winter include wanting to expose their child to cautionary tales of the effects of drug and alcohol abuse and bucking authority, to the hopes of instilling gratitude in unappreciative children during a time they’ll receive more than they need.

Monk’s concern is the oversimplification of a complex host of reasons why “clients” — as he calls them — might need a helping hand and the effects of perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

“Because we live in such a country of disparity, they’re trying to teach their kids they’re privileged, but the danger lies in when you’re doing that at the expense of other families in need, and treating the experience like a poverty zoo — ‘Look at that kid, they have nothing,’” he said.

“You can be purchasing that lesson at the cost of someone else’s dignity,” he added.

Intentions aside, gratitude is an important lesson to learn.

In fact, an increased sense of gratitude is linked to resilience in the face of challenges, motivation, self-esteem, academic outcomes, and even physical health.

“It’s related to achievement because it’s motivating. Humans have a drive to be purposeful. And gratitude helps humans identify a sense of purpose and connection,” said Giacomo Bono, associate professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and co-author of “Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character.”

While volunteering as a family during the holidays can be a gateway to doing it more often, using it as a lesson or discipline strategy can limit a child’s understanding of the concept.

“We know that gratitude tends to be stronger in relationships and experiences that aren’t obligatory. When things are obligatory, you’re responding to what you have to do,” Bono said.

Monk, also a father of three, highlighted the point that, like any good habit we want to model and teach children, gratitude should be exercised incrementally,

“Like eating well or brushing your teeth before bed. It’s a practice,” he said.

That’s why he urges families to take on volunteering once a week or month, year-round, and make gratitude part of the household culture.

To help achieve that, Bono suggested talking to children about intention, action, and appreciation.

“It’s important to make attributions when a person is kind to them. Point out they did it on purpose even though they didn’t have to,” he said.

Tips on instilling gratitude in children:
• Take a moment of achievement or how they improved at something and point to how and who helped them get there.
• Model gratitude by carving out one-on-one time for them and other loved ones.
• Ask your child about a time they felt grateful and why. Share the same with them.
• Practice expressing gratitude by returning acts of kindness.
• Ask your child to talk about times when they’ve done something others might be grateful for.
• Talk about all the things the body and brain can do and acknowledge gratitude for them.

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

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