Thoughts on Gratefulness, Thank-You's and the Gratitude Journal
If one more person tells me about their gratitude journal, I might actually flip out. I know that's probably a terrible thing to say the week of Thanksgiving, and if you have one and it feels really great to you, that's awesome. But, for many moms I know, the gratitude journal seems to be doing more harm than good. Why? Because I see them using it to shame themselves about what they SHOULD be grateful for, or what they feel guilty not appreciating enough. I see the value in appreciating the good fortune in our lives, absolutely. But, if you are struggling with the very common mindset of momguilt and generally not being enough, I think it takes more than a journal to untangle that web. Remember our parents cajoling us into saying 'thank you' or guilting us into being more appreciative by listing all the sacrifices being made for us? To many of the moms I work with, the gratitude journal seems to be a way for grownups to re-live this as adults. The journal is their portable admonishment for hubris and selfishness. Let's think about how to teach kids true gratitude, because I don't find that approach effective, or humane. It didn't work on us as kids (or else why would we need a gratitude journal as adults?). And I would argue that, its grown-up version, the gratitude journal (when used as a guilt tool), is not working for us as adults. I want to approach gratitude differently with my kids.
So how can we instill true gratitude in our kids (and ourselves)? As usual, a deeper solution requires a deeper approach. Whenever my clients are working on ethics or emotions with their children, it's far more effective to go for FOSTERING versus FORCING, because the truth is that we can't force anyone to feel anything. And (this is a tough one for moms to swallow) it's actually none of our business what other people feel, even our kids! That being said, it is certainly possible to foster gratitude in children. My tips for upping the odds we raise grateful kids are:
1) Separate morality from behavior.
Please and Thank You are MANNERS, not emotions. They are definitely necessary behaviors and we need to expect them and model them, with no moral explanation or lecture. Expect them by establishing a rule or expectation, then enforcing it with natural consequences. Model them by saying please and thank you a lot, especially to your kids. It's a lot easier to expect a 'thank you' when you've established that as a normal response. When we think our child's failure to say 'thank you' reflects an actual moral lack, we understandable get upset, overreact or get down on ourselves. It's much easier to effectively enforce behavior rules when we can uncouple them from a profound, terrifying message about ourselves or our children.
2) Feel gratitude so you can model gratitude.
It's damn hard to exude gratitude and satisfaction when you are actually miserable. No list or journal can change your mindset if your life and your thought processes are in a toxic place. It's a lot easier to feel gratitude when you're living a nourished and balanced life (see where the deeper approach comes in?). This means more than simply noticing the blessings you have or writing them down in a journal, especially if you are still in a momguilt mindset. If you are still beating yourself up to achieve your goals, guilting yourself into being grateful, or 'shoulding' all over yourself, the change needs to start there. And it means taking care of yourself, setting boundaries, and living a life that enlivens you, which might include recognizing some dissatisfaction with the way your life is now. You can be appreciative and striving at the same time, and your kids will learn more about gratitude by watching you live that way than any journal could ever teach them.