Welcome to part 2 of the Brain Stages Emotional Quotient Series. (In case you missed it, here’s part 1: 6 Ways to Help Kids Develop Empathy.)
You’ve likely heard that gratefulness and generosity make us happier, but did you know that scientists can track what happens in the brain when we practice these attributes?
When we feel appreciative or give to others, the amygdala or stress center in our brains becomes less active, while the ventral tegmental area, our reward system, becomes more active.
When we do things for others, or even make a decision to give, monetarily or of our time and energy, our temporal parietal junction engages and increases connectivity with the ventral striatum. These are brain areas that light up on an fMRI when we get happy.
The best news about all of this is that parents can teach their children how to be thankful and generous for a happier life!
5 Ways to Help Kids Learn to Be Grateful and Generous
1. Assist your child in writing thank-you notes (or dictating them to you if he isn’t writing yet)—for gifts, special outings with family members or friends, or favors when people go out of their way for him.
Every time your child expresses appreciation in writing, his neural pathways for both gratitude and generosity become more consistent. Not only will your child be consciously grateful for someone else’s thoughtfulness, but he will have done something nice for that person by purposely acknowledging them.
Delivering a written thank-you card is generally best since receivers tend to enjoy such messages in children’s handwriting. If you can’t manage a written note, help your child send thank-you emails or texts to people who have done nice things for him. Electronic recognition for kindness is way better than nothing at all. We might as well take advantage of technology to help our kids grow accustomed to acknowledging people, right?
Your child will likely get a heartfelt response from the receiver that will reinforce the value of expressing gratitude toward others!
2. Have a gratefulness scavenger hunt.
Most of the time, things we can be thankful for are right under our noses, but kids—heck, people of all ages, including yours truly—don’t always notice them. Making a game of focusing on things we appreciate helps kids recognize what to be thankful for, as well as helping them “hit the reset button” when they’re frustrated or in a funk.
If your kids enjoy the game, suggest they try it with their friends. Sharing a game that makes them feel good, with the intention of helping a friend feel better, is another great way for them to practice being generous.
Kimberly from Natural Beach Living regularly posts great parenting tips, and she created a Gratitude Scavenger Hunt that I’m sure she won’t mind if you borrow. You can find it here.
3. Remind your kids that life often “isn’t fair” in their favor.
I think every parent has heard “That’s not fair!”
When our kids would make that declaration, my husband would acknowledge their feelings, but then he would say, “If you think about it, you have a lot of things that aren’t fair in your favor.”
Sometimes he would point out what an awesome dad they had, and they would laugh (though he was telling the truth). Other times he would get serious and remind them of how they had a safe place to live and enough food to eat, things that much of the world wouldn’t find fair.
4. Encourage your children to give family and friends gifts for birthdays and holidays.
Get your kids accustomed to the joy of giving early. Little kids can help you make cookies, ornaments, or other small crafts to give as presents for special occasions. Another nice gift from kids who don’t have much cash is the promise to do a chore they wouldn’t normally do—wash grandma’s car, for example (which may require adult supervision).
When our older daughter was in first grade, she read her favorite story to her blind grandfather for his birthday—which he loved!
There were several years that our kids made coupons to give to people as presents. The coupons promised they would do certain things they knew that person would appreciate.
But have someone be sure to check the coupons.
Our younger daughter gave me a coupon to pull all the weeds in our back yard for my birthday one year. The yard was a complete mess, which she had heard me complain about, so she knew I would love such a gift. Except that job would have taken days for an adult to accomplish—and much more for a third-grader.
She got pretty discouraged after about an hour outside in her garden gloves, equipped with a hand shovel. The yard clean-up became a family activity that lasted the rest of my birthday weekend. I have to admit that accomplishing that task as a family was kind of fun, though, and I sure appreciated the result.
As soon as possible, allow your to child earn money to pay for inexpensive gifts. Our kids loved doing jobs (other than their chores) in exchange for money so they could buy small presents for people.
5. Teach your child to be verbally generous.
Model saying “Thank you,” and remind your child to say those words to people who serve you—the librarian, grocery clerk, waitress, mail carrier, or anyone else you come in contact with who provides a service.
Give sincere compliments as often as you can in front of her. Explain the importance of acknowledging people for their efforts. She’ll notice the positive response you receive when you recognize others and begin to do the same when she notices people doing constructive or nice things.
The key in helping your child develop gratefulness and generosity is to be a patient role model. In doing these five things with your kids, you may find that you become happier too.
Developing your child’s emotional quotient will take time, but will be well worth the effort.
PATRICIA WILKINSON – mother of two, taught grades kindergarten through sixth for 23 years, in both public and private schools. She earned a BA in recreation from California State University, Long Beach, and did graduate work at California State Universities, Los Angeles and Chico, to earn a Clear Multiple-Subject Teaching Credential and Language Development Specialist certificate from the State of California. Today, Trish facilitates life-changing workshops for parents and teachers. It’s amazing what can happen when years of creativity and practical experience merge with thousands of hours of brain research. She lives in Bend, Oregon, with her awesome husband, Chuck, and their rambunctious golden retriever, Alice. Visit her at http://thebrainstages.com