Q: My seventh-grade daughter, Neela, worries about everything. She is a terrific student, but nothing is ever good enough. Her teacher says she's too hard on herself and will be happier if she learns to count her blessings. What do you think of that?
A: Be thankful that Neela has a teacher who suggested she learn a key life skill. Exciting research points to ways that gratitude influences our well-being. While religions and philosophies have long embraced the importance of thankfulness, scientists are latecomers to knowing how gratitude benefits our outlook, says University of California-Davis professor Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., author of "Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier" (Mariner, 2008).
Emmons' studies have shown that children who are appreciative have more positive attitudes toward school and their families. He found that young adults who learn to express daily gratitude reported higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy than those who focus on life's hassles.
This all makes sense to Dawn Mahan, a New York middle-school teacher, who says, "I see many students who practice such negative self-talk that I look for ways to help them learn the power of gratitude."
She points out opportunities for students to count their blessings, not their burdens.
Emmons suggests keeping a gratitude journal. "Doing this for as little as three weeks is often enough to create a meaningful difference in one level of happiness," he says. He also suggests writing a gratitude letter to someone we have not properly thanked in the past, and reading it in person.
When it comes to teens, counselor Marissa Gehley, founder of KNOW (Kids Need Our Wisdom) Consulting, says parents must go beyond teaching kids to say thank you. "That's important, but just a first step in the art of being grateful," she advises.
"Suppose Grandma sends Neela a birthday check for her college fund," Gehley says. "She should write (not text!) a thank you note, of course. But the bigger challenge is to help Neela understand why she should appreciate money for college when she was hoping for a gift card to her favorite store. You meet that challenge with conversation: about goals, college, dreams for her future, and how she's fortunate to have a grandmother who is helping her to achieve them. It's not a five-minute chat. When we (BEGIN ITALS)practice(END ITALS) gratitude consistently, it helps kids cement their values."
Kids won't just one day start gratitude lists. "You need to prime the pump as a family," says Gehley. "At the end of each week, think of things that are a cause for thankfulness. Go beyond the obvious.
"For example, when her son didn't get into a high school he had his heart set on, one mother helped him appreciate that it really was an opportunity. His second-choice school had a great art program, something he's passionate about. The very best way parents can raise grateful kids is by modeling the behavior themselves every day."
Teacher Appreciation Week is May 7-11. It's time to show some serious gratitude to Neela's teacher!
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)