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Ten steps from Kidpower for developing the habit of gratitude

Once, when our family was young, my daughter and son started bickering with each other. I pulled them to sit facing each other, one sitting on each of my legs. Feeling glad that they were still small enough that I could hold them both this way, I listened to them exchanging cross remarks and rubbed their backs.

My husband Ed looked puzzled. “What on earth are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m appreciating them,” I explained.

Curious, both children looked up at me. “What does ‘ppreciating mean?” asked our son, who was younger.

“Appreciating means noticing what is good about someone or something,” I said.

His big sister, who realized that they hadn’t been behaving that nicely, wondered, “What are you appreciating us FOR?”

“I’m appreciating that you are healthy and smart, and I’m appreciating how much we love each other even when we’re angry,” I said. “I feel lucky to have such a happy family. Being grateful takes practice, especially when you are in the middle of a quarrel, so let’s take turns saying what we appreciate about each other.”

We did, with each member of our family making thankful remarks about each person, needing only a couple of gentle reminders to ONLY say things we were really happy about, even if grumpy things might also be true.

When we were done, our son smiled, “I liked that!” he said, “Please ‘ppreciate me some more!”

Generous Gratitude means expressing appreciation and acknowledging the gifts of others in a genuine, enthusiastic way. You have to honestly mean what you are saying, focus on the part of the truth that you are truly grateful for, and be specific about why this is important to you.

Studies that show that taking a few minutes daily to appreciate and feel grateful for what is good in your life increases your happiness, improves your relationships, helps heal emotional issues, and increases physical health.

Generous Gratitude is important whether you are caring for your family, visiting with friends, talking to your boss, managing an employee, discussing something with a colleague, helping a customer on the telephone, or leading a workshop full of students. Expressing your appreciation and thanking people for what they do in a meaningful way will help you to build your connections with others, motivate them, and prevent problems.

In Kidpower, we work on these habits to develop the art of expressing Generous Gratitude:

1. Be genuine.

You have to be thoughtful and deliberate, because saying nice things that you do not truly believe just to make the other person like you, feel good, or do what you want can harm your credibility and your relationship.

Having a mixture of feelings, especially in difficult interactions, is normal at times. You might have to put aside conflicting feelings in a deliberate way in order to communicate gratitude effectively. You will lose credibility if how you are acting is not congruent with what you are saying.

One common pitfall is to gush in general, global ways that become meaningless. Saying over and over to everyone, “You are so incredibly, fabulously wonderful!!!!!” damages credibility quickly. Also, accidentally thanking someone for something that she or he actually did not do will make it hard for that person to believe you in the future, even when you express genuine gratitude about something this person did do.

Instead, make your appreciation genuine by taking a moment to put yourself into the other person’s shoes. Think about what it took for the person to do whatever it was that was helpful or beneficial to you.

2. Focus on what’s working well.

Often, people get so caught up in their own feelings that they have a hard time expressing appreciation without the burden of extra thoughts that diminish the message.  Need for personal recognition or frustration about things the other is not doing, for example, can get in the way. For example, suppose a father wants to motivate his daughter to help with chores. Notice the difference between these three statements:

  • “Even though I did most of the work cleaning this house, thank you for taking out the garbage.”
  • “Even though I had to keep reminding you, thank you for finally taking out the garbage.”
  • “Thank you for taking out the garbage. I know you had to interrupt your conversation with your friend, and I really appreciate your help.”

Which statement would YOU find most motivating? If you tell people how their actions make a positive difference without mixing this message with self-acknowledgement or complaints, they are more likely to repeat the behavior you have appreciated.

3. Take Care of Your Own Needs Separately.

Being grateful does not mean that you have to accept everything someone else does. In a different conversation, you might set boundaries in a positive way. The father in the example above might find a good time for both of them the next day to say to his daughter, “I understand that you enjoy talking with your friends, and I really appreciated your helping clean up last night even though you had to interrupt your conversation. And, I feel frustrated when I have to keep reminding you to take out the garbage. Would you please work with me to make a plan so that you can be in charge of remembering this yourself?”

4. Appreciate Yourself.

You will do a better job of being grateful if you make the space to appreciate and enjoy yourself. Celebrate what you did well without tying your appreciation to negative judgments about what could have gone better. Accept compliments by saying things like, “Thank you. I was glad to help. I enjoy being with (working with) you, too.”

5. Be Specific.

Thanking someone is much more meaningful if you put your energy and your mind into tying your gratitude to someone’s specific action. If possible, state the beneficial result of someone’s behavior on you or your work.

Being specific takes more work, because you have to think about the person as an individual and notice what this individual actually did. You do not have to be creative. Statements can be simple and clear. Remember to thank people both for their time and for their actions. For example:

  • You might say to a friend, “Thank you for taking the time to talk to me this morning. Your ideas really helped me figure out what to do next.”
  • You might say to a group, “Thank you for coming here. I really appreciate your support for each other and your commitment to making our community a safer place.”
  • You might say to someone who has a complaint, “Thank you for taking the time to express your concerns. Your feedback can help us to prevent this kind of problem in the future.”

Specific appreciation is especially important during transitions.  If someone is new, if you have spent time apart or are about to separate, or if there has been stress, clear appreciation can make the transition smoother.

Regular, specific appreciation can also help sustain long-term relationships with daily interaction at home, school, or work.

6. Don’t Be Stingy.

Sometimes, people feel resistance to giving appreciation and fail to make it a priority to thank others generously and often. They have lots of reasons, such as:

  • “I already thanked her a lot.”
  • “I am really annoyed with him right now.”
  • “I did a lot of work to make it possible for her to be successful in getting this done.”
  • “I am too tired/grumpy/sad.”

You will sometimes not feel like giving appreciation. That doesn’t matter. It is important to say what you know to be true even if you don’t necessarily feel it at that moment.

7. Don’t Forget Your “No, thank you!” Power.

Sometimes, people with the best of intentions urge you to do something that is not in your best interests. You can say, “No, thank you!” in a way that still communicates gratitude for the relationship, the intention, or the action.

For example, suppose your aunt is urging you to take the last piece of your favorite chocolate pie when you are already overly full. Smile and say, “Your pie is amazing, and I’m thrilled that you made it for me, but I’m stuffed. Let’s give it to someone else or save it for tomorrow.”

Or, suppose that friends are urging you to drink when you don’t want to or know you shouldn’t. You can say warmly, “I appreciate the offer and enjoy your company, but no, thank you. I don’t want a drink.”

8. Acknowledge Contributions Publicly.

Failing to acknowledge the contributions of others publicly or doing this in a way that minimizes their accomplishments or role can damage relationships. Public acknowledgment of what others have done to make what you are doing possible is fair.  Many individuals, families, schools, and agencies like Kidpower value fairness.

Remember that when you are the one giving public acknowledgement, much of the glory automatically goes to you as well as to others. You can honor yourself while honoring others. For example, “I feel grateful for all the people who help make Kidpower possible. And, this article owes a lot to the wisdom of Mark Morris, who gave us the ‘water what you want to see grow’ idea; the keen eye of Beth McGreevy, who told me what to change and found the beautiful photo; the editing from Erika and Chantal, who made the first version much better; and the technical support of Allegra and Dillon, who sent out the newsletter.”

9. Water What You Want to See Grow.

Keep repeating your appreciation, because you want to keep rewarding behavior that was helpful to you and reinforcing behavior you want to see continue. Remember that appreciation is to people like sunshine, water, and fertilizer are to plants.  Continuing to notice people’s positive actions encourages these positive behaviors to grow.

10. Remember That the Sky is Full of Stars.

Giving recognition to the actions and perceptions of others might seem as if it would diminish your own accomplishments or minimize your own concerns. Ironically, it turns out that the opposite is true. If you become effective at appreciating and acknowledging others, they are far more likely to enjoy being with you, and problems can often be worked out far more easily.

Expand your awareness to keep noticing the importance of everyone, all the time. Remember that the sky is full of stars, and there is room enough for each and every one of them.

When my dear friend, colleague, and teacher Annette Washington was dying of cancer, she wrote me, “Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by fear and pain. But then I say, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Thank You,  THANK YOU, THANK YOU for all my blessings. And I am able to come back to myself.”

Whether we are going through easier times or harder times, generous gratitude can help us come back to our best selves and can help us nurture our relationships.

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Published: March 13, 2012   |   Last Updated: November 23, 2016

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.