During the challenging season of the holidays it is tempting for busy parents to gloss over the very reasons Thanksgiving and Christmas exist. It’s easy to be distracted by television commercials and to forget our relationship with God.
Yet, education experts advise that just a few small changes to our routine can help the entire family develop a thankful spirit – and Advent is the perfect time to do so.
“Sometimes we make too big a project of these big values,” says Katie Dawson, director of the Diocese of Orange Faith Formation program. “It seems like a monumental task but it is rooted in everyday practices and simple things the family can do.”
Quite simply, Dawson explains, everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God. “We don’t deserve our own existence,” she continues. “At the heart of gratitude is the realization that everything we have is a gift. We are created, and we should be grateful that we are blessed to live.”
Parents overlook that pretty easily, she notes, and then are surprised when their children aren’t giving thanks for all the things they should be grateful for. “The first step is for adults to be grateful, and then small rituals of gratitude can be included in family life.”
Cultivating a thankful spirit can begin as simply as beginning a dinnertime conversation during which each family member discusses one ‘high’ and one ‘low’ of their day, Dawson notes, giving children the opportunity to share authentically and pair it with something they can be grateful for.
“Words speak and deeds change us,” she adds. “When we express words of gratitude and we behave gratefully, then our interior reality has the tendency to conform to that. It’s important for adults to take time and make space in their lives to say thank you to family, friends, the barista and coworkers. In fact, the more humble the individual is, the more important it is that we say thank you.”
Emmanuel means “God with us,” Dawson reminds us, “yet, we overlook the fact that for many cultures, God was a distant judge, not a loving or personal deity. The idea that God comes close to us is revolutionary and transforms everything.”
A recent Catholic News Service story notes that gratitude – like all the virtues – must be cultivated. One way to practice gratefulness is to write thank you notes for gifts we receive, including intangible gifts such as visits or thoughtful gestures. Thank you notes, however, are just the beginning:
- Say thank you and go out of your way to ensure that a coworker or spouse knows you are grateful for their help.
- Count your blessings. Examine your life. Understand how much you have to be thankful for.
- Recognize your toxic self-talk and choose positive words to describe yourself. Gratitude and appreciation are impossible when you are in a state of fear and loathing.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Recent psychology research conducted at UC Davis has found that gratitude improves your health, raises energy levels, promotes alertness and determination, improves sleep and possible even relieves pain and fatigue.
- Give back. One way to thank someone who’s performed an act of kindness for you is to do the same for someone else.
Practicing thankfulness until it becomes a heartfelt habit can improve our lives and enrich our children’s lives as well. Cicero was quoted as saying “gratitude is not the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Aesop’s Fables notes that “gratitude is the sign of noble souls.” English preacher John Henry Jowett summed up the importance of gratefulness by saying “every virtue divorced from thankfulness is maimed and limps along the spiritual road.”