Balancing Act

Expressing gratitude is best learned by example

Yale expert says be a model for gratitude year-round to raise thankful children

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Children and gratitude

Parents can play an important role in teaching children the need to show and feel gratitude. (Ryan Rayburn / for the Chicago Tribune)

Some of us are still reeling from our attempts to coax a shred of Thanksgiving gratitude out of our kids.

"Remember, sweetie, when Grandma asked what you're most thankful for and you said nail polish? I wonder if next year we could mention some things that aren't sold in the cosmetics aisle."

Let's not lose hope, though. Even amid the holiday jumble of mixed messages — Make a list of all the presents you want! Be grateful for what you have! Smile for Santa! Remember the needy! — it really is possible to raise kids with a passing notion of their great good fortune.

I know. I didn't believe it either. But a Yale guy assures me it's true.

Alan E. Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center and author of "The Everyday Parenting Toolkit" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), has some fascinating, research-based theories on shaping our kids' outlooks — how they, literally, see the world.

Parents have more power than we realize, he says, to direct and alter children's perceptions about themselves and the culture around them.

"You can sit down at the table with your partner and say, 'I want these three things in my child,'" Kazdin told me. "Maybe you want gratitude and altruism and kindness. Maybe you want self-esteem. Whatever it is, you constantly look for instances in which you can model it.

"Modeling is huge. It's just huge."

We can spell out, day after day, a well-reasoned, multipoint illustration of how much our kids have to be grateful for. We can remind them that lots of kids would be thrilled to have one (just one!) American Girl doll. We can read them statistics on world hunger — heck, national hunger — and remind them that broccoli is, actually, the opposite of the worst thing ever.

None of it's as effective, Kazdin says, as modeling some gratitude of our own.

"It's like if you sat down with your child at the piano and said, 'Now I'm going to teach you the scales. Don't touch anything,'" he says. "It would be the silliest thing in the world."

Explaining a concept, in other words, doesn't teach it nearly as well as modeling and practicing it.

"Practice changes your brain," he says. "When an amateur musician becomes a great musician, his brain has actually changed. You can measure and see the changes in specific neurons and networks in the brain."

But it's not enough to wait for big moments that call for obvious gestures of gratitude. We have to create moments, Kazdin says, to model and encourage the behaviors we hope to instill in our kids.

Maybe that means complaining less about how much we just ate and how much laundry we have to do and how busy we are at the office and acknowledging — aloud — how out-of-this-world grateful we feel to have much too much of the things that so many people crave: food, clothing, work.

Maybe it means letting our kids know how grateful we are to have them.

A few weeks ago my son slammed his finger in the classroom door as we were leaving preschool. My daughter and I rushed him to the emergency room, where a surgeon repaired his tiny bones and reattached a portion of his pinkie that was amputated. He heard me tell the story more than a dozen times over the next few days to family members, friends, neighbors.

When we returned to school a couple of days later, he was ready to tell the story himself. His take?

"Thank God my sister was with us," he told his teacher. "She calmed me down in the car and she carried my mom's purse at the hospital."

Which is what he heard me tell every kind soul who checked in with us, post-hospital. I truly was thanking God (and anyone else who would listen) for my daughter's help.

I just didn't realize I was teaching my son to do the same.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

Explaining a concept doesn't teach it nearly as well as practicing it.

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