Making Grateful Kids

Applying the science of gratitude to help youth thrive

Gratitude and Community Go Hand in Hand

Helping Others Grow Can Be the Best Gift of All.

We dropped off our 7 year-old son at karate last night a bit late. Most of the students were already doing their stretches with the sensei. My wife mentioned to the sensei that he got a bloody nose before class thanks to a bump-in with his little brother’s head. Believing that everybody heard this disclosure, our son became embarrassed and reluctant to enter the classroom.

We tried to convince him that there was nothing to be embarrassed about. “It’s normal for people to accidentally bump their nose,” we said. That didn’t work.

“Nobody but sensei heard.” That didn’t work.

There we all stood in front of the classroom trying to resolve the matter calmly, with 20 or so kids trying to have class and our son absolutely fixed on a detail we had no idea would get him so upset. It’s a kind of situation that many parents of young children may have encountered before.

As we were about to retreat to the car with hands in the air, the sensei approached. He assured our son that only he heard, mentioned that everybody in the class was waiting for him, and then asked the students to welcome him—which they heartily obliged. We were relieved as our son kicked off his shoes, tied on his belt, and entered the classroom with his sensei.

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As adults across the country and throughout world think about the unbelievably horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, I thought about the lesson I had just learned. It was a simple idea that has not received much play in the media lately, as everyone tries to make sense of why the tragedy occurred.

“Virtue is never left to stand alone. He who has it will have neighbors.” – Confucius

Obviously there are many motivating factors that come into play in the Newtown tragedy, but lack of social capital seems like an important one. Though various definitions of social capital have been proposed by scholars in different fields (i.e., sociology, psychology, political science, economics), a common notion is that social networks serve important instrumental resources for individuals by helping to benefit their immediate productivity (e.g., learning social or athletic skills or techniques for hobbies or personal interests) or their long term success (e.g., learning skills that are advantageous educationally, professionally, romantically, civically).

Supportive social ties are critical to physical and psychological health and specifically to healthy moral development. It’s easy for parents, teachers, or neighbors to forget about helping youth to cultivate social capital. We each try to cope with daily challenges, often alone, and forget to consider the social ties that may matter in the long run for children. This is especially important for teens with autism who require extra help gaining opportunities to socialize, find companionship, and prepare for the world of work. And yet social capital seems to have been largely missing in Adam Lanza’s life unfortunately.

Cultivating social capital is an important part of instilling gratitude in youth. It is how we make room in their lives for beneficial interactions to occur, and this is how gratitude really takes root. It helps youth explore their personal strengths and the issues they care about, and importantly, it enables them to determine their own path in life. And from there many good things follow (so tune in to future posts!).

As we approach the holidays this year with gratitude for the loved ones in our lives, let’s pay tribute to the fallen children of Sandy Hook by not just taking care of our own, but remembering to be a sensei—or a neighbor, mentor, or friend—who knows just how to step in and help a young person grow. So lend a hand if you see a neighbor’s kid struggling to put the head on top of their overly tall snowman; help a kid who has to finish a school project during the holiday break; or lend an ear to a niece or nephew who may be having an issue with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Doing so and giving them your time, energy, and attention—the greatest gifts of all—will give them, and each of us, reason to be grateful.

Giacomo Bono is an adjunct professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

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