Teaching the way of gratitude

mindfulness-gratitude-childrenHave you discovered how very powerful giving thanks is for uplifting your mood, day and life? Coaches and spiritual teachers these days suggest that we keep a gratitude journal or set aside time to be grateful every day as a way to shift our focus toward a more positive frequency.

It’s not just another thing to try so we can feel better — in my experience, it really works.

Making a shift toward gratitude

The study of neuroplasticity confirms that when we intentionally and repeatedly focus on “taking in the good” — as neuropsychologist Rick Hanson PhD, suggests — we cause changes in our neurons that shift us away from the innate bias toward always looking for threat.

In other words, when we develop a conscious gratitude practice, over time we can actually change our negative mind chatter into a more settled way of being that is open to the possibility that good things just might indeed come our way. I like to think of it as quality elevator music that accompanies us as we intentionally choose to experience life on higher floors.

If you are like me, noticing what I already have that is good enough does not come naturally. I was raised to be constantly prepared for whatever problems were inevitably on their way to my door. I was taught to be constantly doing, preparing, and preventing with a kind of “storing up food for the harsh winter” mentality. But even though the experiences of the Great Depression were passed down to me in my DNA, I am determined that this fear-based way of living will stop with me.

If we can instill the habit of giving thanks, we prepare our children for a life of pleasant contentment. 

Ever since my daughter was very small, we have made it a practice to express gratitude. In that kind of “Do as I say, not as I do” way, it’s easier for me to notice how she says things and to offer a course-correct toward a more positive view.

To my delight, out of the blue, she will sometimes spontaneously list all the things she loves about our house, our neighborhood, our view, the store that offers the stuff we need, the birds flying by, and on and on. It just bursts out of her! In those moments, I get to switch channels from brooding over my to-do list to instead witnessing her enthusiasm. It makes me give thanks that I must be doing something right after all.

A good way to create a readiness to be grateful is to establish the habit of giving thanks. Giving thanks together, in whatever way suits your family, makes everyone slow down and take a mindful moment.

A fitting place to do this is at mealtimes, because they happen at the same time each day and everyone is sitting down together. Even a sandwich on the hiking trail can serve as another opportunity to pause and recognize the gift of nourishment. Food comes from somewhere and it ends up on the table because of the effort of people — so that’s something to appreciate.

In our house, we like to make up songs. If they catch on, we keep them. Below is one of our gratitude prayers before we eat. It is a little song we sing at the table to bless and enliven the food we are about to eat. It also gives the less-than-favorite vegetables a little more status, I hope. Imagine it going with a pleasant sort of Irish music tune.

Thank You for My Food
Thank you for my food, thank you for my food,
Made by Mother Earth and warmed by Father Sun.
Thank you to the seed that grew in the soil,
And blessings to the farmers who made food from their toil.
Thank you for my carrots, thank you for my tacos, thank you for my…
Thank you for my food.

Sometimes my child will add a line to thank the cook, which I accept with a gracious bow.

Play. Cook. Chef.

I recently took my son to the Raleigh Children’s Museum. It was so much fun. We shopped for groceries at the play store and went through the check-out line. Ben loaded up his canvas grocery cart on wheels with waffle and pancake mix, fresh fish, fruits and vegetables,  a loaf of fresh bread, peanut butter, milk, and eggs. When I sat at the check-out line several kids brought me their groceries. I played the part and scanned each item, encouraging them to bring their shopping cart over to load up their groceries after they paid.

My son, Benjamin headed to the check-out line
After we checked out, Ben wheeled his cart over to the kitchen and put his groceries away in the refrigerator.  I suddenly wanted to have this play kitchen in my own home. Then I realized he has been doing this with his father. My husband is a very good cook. I can cook, but I tend to cook with recipes. My husband, of Italian descent often cooked with his grandmother as a child.  He does not need recipes. He can look at a bag of flour, frozen meat and the spice cabinet and whip up a delicious healthy meal. I need a recipe.

I took some time to watch my son play with the other children, each cooking with authority and excitement. Ben, who is almost three had to be encouraged several times to share the kitchen. Sometimes he acts like he is Chef Ramsey.

Play. Cook. Chef.

I realized what he was cooking was a mirror of how he sees food in our home. And thank goodness my husband cooks with him.  I bake cookies and biscuits with him, but other than that, I tend to cook better when I am alone in the kitchen. But let’s not pretend here — I rarely cook.

The chef has an idea!
Even though I can not take him to a wonderful children’s museum like this all the time, I can provide the same space for him to explore with food and enjoy the process. I realized my own fear of cooking is based in well, fear. I am a perfectionist.  After being a mom for over three years, I should realize nothing is perfect. I have to allow myself more space to mess up. Watching the children play, there was not one child afraid of messing up. They were too busy doing what kids do best — be kids.
"Play is the best form of research."

It was fun to watch my son cook in a kitchen that was equipped with just about every culinary tool a child would want or need. Then I realized my own home can serve as a children’s museum as well, at least the kitchen part. I saw a play kitchen today at Goodwill and I wanted to buy it for Ben. Then my husband reminded me that Ben has two other play kitchens (actually three). I was attracted to the storage bins of this new kitchen. My living room is covered in plastic carrots, onions, tomatoes, and apples. Add cardboard mini versions of cake mix and measuring spoons and a whole mess of other toy kitchen items.

The Joy of Cooking

Ben was ready. He had his groceries and the ingredients he needed to create. I just watched and enjoyed seeing him play. He chopped and seasoned the vegetables.  He took a syrup bottle and added some sauce. And then he mixed and stirred with authority.

Mix Mix Mix

I am embarrassed to admit how little I cook. Perhaps I need to take my toddler’s attitude and apply it to myself. Have fun. Food is fun.

We spent most of our time at the museum in the two kitchens. The second floor had another kitchen. There was a dance floor with music, a hockey arena, and a basketball court. Ben chose the kitchen.

"A two year old is kind of like a blender but you don't have top for it."

At the second kitchen he gathered his ingredients and made smoothies. This is something his father does with him. And he loves drinking smoothies. We make freeze pops out of them and use them as Popsicles. My husband had a great idea of adding soy protein powder to the smoothies since Ben does not like to eat meat.

The grocery store, farmer's market, and kitchen
My Little Chef

Even though I may not be modeling cooking with my son, he has models in his life to give him a healthy model. He cooks with his uncle, grandpa, grandma, and dad. I will stick with making cookies and biscuits with him. Perhaps Ben can teach me to cook.