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Teaching My Sons the Power of Gratitude

During my college years, I spent three summers working at camp. The days were long, the tasks often unglamorous. It was there I learned the proper way to put on toilet paper rolls and make a bed with hospital corners. But I learned some life-altering lessons there, too, including a mantra I still repeat: Gratitude evaporates frustration.

To bookend long days of chasing rambunctious kids and scrubbing toilets, we practiced gratitude. There was always something to be thankful for: a gap-toothed smile from a favorite camper, a nighttime swim under the stars, dance parties while pushing vacuums.

My camp director wasn’t just trying to motivate us to be better toilet-scrubbers. There’s a science behind gratitude. According to NPR’s Morning Edition, “Studies have found that giving thanks and counting blessings can help people sleep better, lower stress and improve interpersonal relationships.” Simply put, gratitude is better for our health—physical and mental.

This practice extended past my college years. In a daily email exchange with former colleagues, I would “reply all” with three specific gratitudes for the day: a phone call with my brother, the painted morning sky, my dog’s new haircut. Together we created a symphony of thanksgiving.

As the mom of teens, this practice is life-saving.

I’m not sure about your teens, but mine can be connoisseurs of complaints. The lemonade isn’t sweet enough or tart enough. Their teachers don’t care enough, or they care too much. The sky is too bright or too cloudy. I made eggs for breakfast two days in a row.

Humans are given to griping. Have you spent any time in the comment section anywhere lately? We are a society fueled by frustration. What can we as parents do about it? It’s almost Thanksgiving, so maybe (if we’re lucky) we’ll get some thanks from our teens. But how can we develop longer-lasting habits?

How to Encourage Gratitude

1. Start a gratitude journal

Years ago when my sons were still in elementary school, we started a gratitude journal. Each night after dinner, we took turns recording what we were thankful for with two basic rules: Be more specific than “a good day” and don’t repeat what someone else already said.

As I look back through those nuggets now, I see gratitude for vacations (November 27: “A wonderful time in Chicago”) and family memories (June 15: “Playing baseball with Dad”). We’ve said thanks for the silly and small (July 20: “Ding Dongs”) and the significant and serious (December 4: “We have enough food”).

As the teens grew older and schedules got busier, the tradition morphed. Now we don’t always get the gratitudes recorded, but whatever iteration of us is at the table on a given night verbally states at least one gratitude before being excused. And even on their grumpiest evenings, on the night after bombing a math test or drinking that too-bland lemonade, my sons can still find something simple to express thanks for: a favorite meal prepared, perfect weather for driveway basketball, a cuddle from the dog.

It’s not some magical incantation, but the statement of gratitude often shifts an attitude. Don’t get me wrong. They don’t immediately break into song, smiles spreading across previously-sullen faces. But a little bit of the frustration melts away, and the mood is lighter as we clean up the kitchen before moving onto homework.

2. Make a gratitude jar

If you’re crafty, decorate it. Keep some scraps of paper near the jar and encourage everyone in the family to add something to it each day. Stuff those simple slips of paper into your  jar so they’re ready for a rainy day — literal or metaphorical. Some families read through them all once a year (maybe on New Year’s Eve), but do what works best for your family. If you’re feeling down or a family member is having a not-so-great day, pull out a few slips and be reminded of the many simple things you have to be thankful for.

3. Write gratitude notes

Write short letters to other family members expressing what you appreciate about that person. Research by Greater Good Magazine shows it makes both people—the writer and the recipient—happy. 

These letters don’t have to be long and flowery. In our family, we use Post-its. I leave little notes stating something specific I appreciate about my sons and husband and hide them like secret treasures. Sometimes I notice these notes stuck in a pile on a nightstand or used as a bookmark. Similarly, I have sweet notes from my sons posted on the bulletin board next to my desk. In hard parenting times, it’s nice to be reminded they don’t find everything I do annoying.

This practice doesn’t have to be relegated to family members. Buy some cheap thank-you notes from the dollar store and spend a few minutes writing notes to others—teachers, extended family members, coaches. Your teens might balk at first, but the end result will be worth it. The art of the thank-you note doesn’t have to be lost.

4. Share extra gratitude on special occasions

Like most teen brothers, my sons are usually engaging in some level of minor name-calling, yelling at the other to get out of his room, or trying to spray each other with a water bottle in the bathroom. I might as well have a recording of myself saying, “Be kind” and save myself the vocal strain. 

My older son recently celebrated his birthday, and on this particular birthday evening, something magical happened. Between bites of his burrito, my younger son looked his brother in the eye and shared how proud he was of his work ethic and responsibility. Unprompted and without flinching, he told him he loved him and was thankful for their relationship. If he hadn’t been sitting down, I would’ve worried my older son might faint.

That night as I was drifting off to sleep, our family group text flashed a notification with a message from my older son: “Good night, fam. I get the best present in the whole world every day waking up and seeing all of y’all.” 

This doesn’t mean we don’t have the ugliness that comes with living in a family: arguing about screen time, nagging about chores, and regretting harsh words. But I truly believe we’re able to end more days than not on a positive note—all because of the power of gratitude.

Kimberly Witt

Kimberly Witt is an Iowa transplant placing roots in St. Paul, Minnesota. With her husband of 17 years, she is raising two amazing teenage sons who were born in Ethiopia. She enjoys writing, running, and (surprisingly) helping her sons with math homework.

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