“Mama! Mama! MAAAAMAAAAA!!!”

My three-year-old son summons me to the couch.

“Yes?”

“Water!” He shakes his empty sippy cup at me, continuing to watch his show. It’s his much-coveted “TV-time” and I am in the midst of preparing dinner.
An image pops into my mind—my son in 30 years, lounging on a couch in a white undershirt, demanding another beer. Nope. I’m not going to enable that sort of behaviour.

“Um, are you forgetting something?”

He sighs audibly, rolls his eyes, and adds, “Now!”

Uh oh.

Gratitude. Not only does cultivating a sense of gratitude bring more happiness into your life (and the lives of those around you), but it can help you stay healthier by influencing you to make positive choices, and can also lower your stress levels. Who wouldn’t want their kids to lead happy, positive, healthy lives?

If only it were so easy to simply teach kids to “Be grateful,” like we say, “Don’t touch the stove.” But no, it—like so much in parenting—is more complicated, and more of a process than a single learning event. Sometimes it can take people years to truly understand the concept of gratitude. I started a personal practice of mindful gratitude just over a decade ago, but I would love for my son to reap the benefits of one sooner.

Thanksgiving is an opportune, once-a-year occasion to talk about what we are thankful for, but there are some things that parents can do on a regular basis to model and help our kids to build an “attitude of gratitude.”

Time For Reflection
It’s easy to lose track of things that happen in the blur of day-to-day busy-ness, so it’s important to carve out daily, designated chunks of time for reflection, even if it’s just a few precious minutes. Every night before bed my son and I ask each other: “What made you happy today?” which leads very naturally into a little discussion of what we are grateful for.

Saying It When We Feel It
Throughout the day, when I feel grateful for something I make a point of verbalizing it in front of my son. This can be as simple as, “What a beautiful morning! I’m so grateful the sun is shining!” When someone gives of themselves or their time, I point that out: “Wow, that was so kind of the cashier to give you a sticker and ask you how your day was going!”

Despite occasional backward slides, like the little scene I opened with (not his finest hour), my son constantly surprises and delights me with random expressions of gratitude. Just the other day we were on our daily circuit of the neighbourhood, me walking the dog and him on his strider bike. After coming to a particularly drawn-out stop (gravel and pinecones flying) at an intersection, he turned to me and said, “Mama, I wuv my shoes. Tank you for my shoes!” These amazing moments eclipse the apparent lapses in gratitude that occur when he is tired, hungry, distracted, or simply peopled-out (it happens to the best of us). I make sure to reinforce his heartfelt expressions: “I’m so happy to hear you are grateful for your shoes. They really help you to stop quickly!”

Focus On What We Have
We live in a materialistic culture based on decades of marketers telling us we “need” more, more, more, in order to be happy. When my son starts saying he needs a certain toy, for example, I get him to think about what it really means to “need” something: does he require it for food, shelter, or safety? Slowly, but surely, he’s starting to learn the difference between “need” and “want,” which takes some of the urgency out of these requests. They still happen regularly, but it’s getting easier to redirect him to what he already has.

Marie Kondo is Onto Something
I’ve been watching Tidying Up on Netflix and applying the KonMari principles to my own collections—namely, books and music. My son is right by my side as I empty things onto the floor and go through them one by one, deciding which “spark joy” and thanking the others for their service before I put them in the donation box. It’s a bit of a game to him right now, but hopefully he’ll absorb some of the message that possessing more things does not equal more happiness, and that clearing away the extra helps us to notice and be more thankful for what we truly cherish. Wish me luck, as I plan to go through his room with him this way sometime soon!

The Power of “Thank You”
My son knows he is expected to say thank you. If he forgets (just like all kids), I remind him. I don’t do it loudly or in a way that shames or embarrasses him, but I have been known to give a little nudge or whisper in his ear to prompt him, which is almost always followed by an enthusiastic, “TANK YOU!” Increasingly he remembers on his own, because we’ve made it a habit and because we model it for him. It’s the simplest expression of gratitude—someone does something for you and you say thank you.

Literature to the Rescue…Again!
There are many fabulous children’s books which explore the idea of gratitude through the narratives of engaging characters and everyday circumstances that your kids can relate to. Here are a few we’ve recently read and enjoyed:
Splat Says Thank You! by Rob Scotton
Lucky Me by Lora Rozler
The Thankful Book by Todd Parr
Bear Says Thanks by Karma Wilson
Ten Thank-You Letters by Daniel Kirk

Parenting is hard, and exhausting, and there is never enough time to do everything you want. I find it helps to think of teaching gratitude not as an “extra,” on top of everything else, but as an ongoing process that is embedded in the everyday. And so, as we move into this darker, cooler time of year I admire the colourful leaves, inhale the crisp Autumn air, snuggle up under a cozy blanket with my son, the cats, and a good book, and I am grateful.

Kelly McQuillan is a writer, musician, teacher, and fledgling mother living in Comox, BC. kellymcquillanwriter.weebly.com.