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Your sweet, innocent toddler suddenly becomes a demanding preschooler, asking for the latest in toys and clothes. If you've had this experience, you know all too well that children don't always intuitively feel gratitude. But, like most character traits, gratitude can be learned. A child who has learned to be grateful is not only easier to live with, but will likely also be happier and more well-adjusted.
Teach Basic Etiquette
Gratitude is an abstract concept, but even very young children can learn to say "please" and "thank you." These early lessons pave the way for later feelings of gratitude. Model social etiquette for your kids even before they're verbal. Say please and thank you to waiters, bank tellers and store clerks. Open doors for others and offer your seat to the elderly. These simple kindnesses teach children social sensitivity, a trait which will eventually develop into gratitude.
Gratitude is something that develops over time, notes Jennifer Little, Ph.D, educational consultant and founder of Parents Teach Kids, an academic and behavioral support service for families. Kids learn more about being grateful from watching the adults in their lives than from anything you might say. "When parents are selfish and take from others and the world, the child learns that this behavior is acceptable," says Little. On the other hand, parents who consistently express appreciation and look for the positive aspects of life teach children profound lessons in optimism and resiliency.
Express your gratitude for simple, daily events — a kind word from a stranger, a beautiful sunset or a good book. Even frustrating situations, such as being stuck in traffic, can be an opportunity to teach a grateful heart. For example, perhaps you're grateful that you have a car to drive or that your family is safe in the car. Look for the good in each day and share these experiences with your children over dinner or at bedtime. Your children will soon follow suit.
Change Your Focus
We live in a materialistic culture, and it's easy to get caught up in the "gimmies." Feelings of envy over material possessions can quickly destroy your efforts at teaching gratitude. De-emphasize consumerism and a sense of entitlement. Instead of spending weekends shopping at the mall, spend time together in a fun activity. Read books, play sports or go see a play. Avoid buying things that you don't really need. Work as a family to raise money for vacations and other extras, advises Richard and Linda Eyre, authors of "The Entitlement Trap: How to Rescue Your Child with a New Family System of Choosing, Earning, and Ownership." Let your children earn their spending money, rather than just doling out the dollars to them.
Kids are naturally egocentric; learning to consider another's perspective teaches not only gratitude, but empathy, says Dr. Holly Parker, clinical psychologist at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital, Mass. She suggests playing the "What If?" game with your child. Ask kids to imagine situations, such as how they'd feel if they gave someone a gift and the person didn't care versus someone who responded with enthusiasm and gratitude.
Volunteerism is one way to help kids learn about being grateful. When kids serve others, they become aware of the challenges life sometimes brings. They learn to appreciate the many good things in their own lives and they feel a sense of accomplishment and joy in helping someone else. Volunteerism can be a structured activity, such as working at a food bank or visiting a hospital. It can also be a simple gesture — shoveling a neighbor's driveway, taking dinner to someone who is ill, or reading a book to a younger child.
Encourage your children to serve within your family and write notes of appreciation to each other. Children can help each other with homework, unload the dishwasher without being asked or simply offer a kind word of encouragement. When you notice your kids helping voluntarily, offer sincere praise such as: "Thanks for making the beds this morning. It was such a nice surprise, and it made my day go more smoothly."