4 Ways to Cultivate Gratitude in Children

Cultivating GratitudeSomeone once said it’s not what kind of world we’re leaving for our children, but what kind of children we’re leaving for our world. Kindness and a sense of gratitude are core values that we need to help encourage in children. And, while encouraging a positive mindset is something to consider all year long, the holidays present a unique opportunity to focus on a message of gratitude.

Studies have shown that children who cultivate gratitude in their lives have better social relationships and do better in school. Being grateful actually contributes to our overall sense of well-being and helps increase our happiness. But, as any parent of a young child knows – especially during the holidays – encouraging gratitude in the midst of pressure for expensive or numerous gifts can be challenging.

So, how do parents help encourage gratitude in children?

Focus on Experiences

Parents feel pressure to buy the designer items or the latest toys and can go over budget buying holiday gifts. Kids can get swept up in it too. I’ve heard parents complain that shortly after the gift-opening the toys are often ignored, or there’s already talk of wanting more. One way to help overcome the material aspect of the season is to focus on experiences. I’ve heard of families that don’t give toys or other items. Instead, they give “experiences” – a promise of a family trip during the summer, membership at a museum, or a class at a local arts studio. The children not only get the unique experience, but also memories more meaningful than a toy.

One of my favorite holiday memories happened when I was 14 years old. My family was leaving church after service. It was lightly snowing, something that was rare for where we were living at the time, and we could hear the carolers singing on the street.  We stopped and one by one began to join in with the singing. As all the voices came together, I was filled with a sense of wonder and connection with the true meaning of the season.  More than any present I ever received, that is a holiday memory that will forever stay with me.

Make Gratitude a Part of Your Daily Conversation

Consider making gratitude a part of your daily conversation. During dinner or as part of a bedtime ritual, ask children to share three things they’re grateful for. A friend of mine asks her children what they did in their day to make someone happy. My mom used to sing a little song that included the things I was grateful for that day, and I would help by naming the different items so she would include them in the lyrics.

Modeling an attitude of appreciation is also key. One way to do that is by being grateful for the time you get to spend together. Bake cookies together, go for a hike, spend time as a family and when you do, express your positive feelings about the experience.

You can also help kids recognize what it means to be grateful by calling attention to the good things that happen and attribute a positive emotion to it. For example, “Your friend drew you a picture.  That must have taken her some time, and I see that makes you happy.” And then ask, “I wonder what your friend was thinking?” By talking about it with your child it helps take the experience beyond the superficial and can help him or her empathize with her friend.

As you encourage kids to be grateful for what they have or receive, don’t forget to encourage them to be grateful for their own abilities. Doing so will help build their sense of self and self-esteem. Point out when you see they’ve worked hard at something, or that you’ve noticed they’ve helped someone out. It’s not about saying they’ve done something good. It’s about the effort they’ve made or help that they’ve given.

Consider looking for service opportunities in the community. There are volunteer opportunities for families, whether through church or local organizations. Decide whether you’d prefer a one-time or ongoing experience and then call organizations or visit their websites to learn more. Volunteering helps provide perspective for children on their good fortunes and the gifts and blessings they already have, and allows children to feel good about helping to make a difference for others.

Look for the Silver Lining

As you’re working to cultivate a sense of gratitude, don’t forget there is also an opportunity to find the silver lining when things don’t go our way. Maybe a child had to share a cookie with a sibling. Or a child didn’t receive a desired gift from a relative. Or they experience something difficult in school.  It’s okay to be disappointed but these challenges can help the child grow. But, it can be hard to know how to deal with disappointment. Help your child try looking for any positive that might have come from the experience. Sharing the cookie meant making someone else really happy. Focus on the idea that Grandma or Aunt Sue was being thoughtful with their gift.  The child may have learned some important life lessons from the difficulty at school.  Listen to your child’s disappointment and try not to get upset or critical. Kids will be kids. But take advantage of the opportunity to help kids grow by encouraging them to also consider a broader perspective.

Say Thank You

And don’t forget thank you notes. Encourage kids to think about why they like the gift and include that in the message. Don’t stop with just the gifts. Consider leaving a little note expressing thanks for something nice someone in the family did. Make gratitude a part of the everyday experience for the family.

As we talk about gratitude and kindness, what we’re really talking about is putting more love out in the world. And that can be one of the most meaningful gifts of all.

How do you encourage gratitude in your children?

4 Ways to Cultivate Gratitude in Children
About Shilagh Mirgain, PhD
Dr. Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, is a health psychologist with UW Health.

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Sleep and the College Student

shutterstock_218779564Cramming for exams, research, work, even late-night parties – there are many things that compete for a college student’s time and sleep is often the first thing to go. But getting an adequate amount of sleep is important for a student’s overall health and well-being.

On average, a young adult should get eight to nine hours of sleep. When a person experiences a chronic lack of adequate sleep, there can be numerous and sometimes significant side effects, including:

  • Mood issues such as irritability and frustration
  • Difficulty concentrating, impaired memory, creativity and organizational skills
  • Impulse control – individuals are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors such as drinking or driving fast
  • Impaired driving – driving while drowsy is associated with more than 300,000 traffic accidents every year
  • Obesity – a lack of sleep can lead the body to crave more calorically dense foods as well as increased insulin resistance

Good sleep habits can help ensure students get the rest they need. While it can be difficult in a college setting, it’s important to try and stay on a regular sleep schedule – going to bed and waking at the same time. While there may be a temptation to stay up late and sleep late on the weekends, ideally the schedule shouldn’t vary by more than an hour. Additional suggestions for maintaining a good sleep schedule include:

  • Limit naps to no more than 30 minutes, and preferably in the early afternoon
  • Avoid caffeine after 2pm. The stimulating effects of caffeine can wear off much sooner than the effects on sleep. So, even if a person feels tired, the caffeine may prevent him or her from falling asleep.
  • Avoid substances like smoking, alcohol and drugs.
  • Turn off electronic devices including phones, computers, tables and TVs. The light level from these devices can affect the bodies’ internal sleep clock and make it difficult to fall asleep.
Sleep and the College Student
About Cami Matthews, MD
Dr. Cami Matthews is a sleep medicine specialist at Wisconsin Sleep and a pediatrician at UW Health East Clinic.

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Age-Appropriate Portions

Serving SizesNovember appears to be the calm before the holiday storm. It is when the holiday eating begins. Most Americans gain an average of 10 lbs over the holiday season, but this doesn’t have to be a family tradition. One can still enjoy the Thanksgiving faire and seasonal treats in moderation.

Learning about age-appropriate portion sizes can be a key to success. While people of all ages need a variety of food groups, the servings from the food groups vary greatly. Check out the chart below to see what is appropriate for you and your family:

Food group 1-3 years 4-5 years 6-12 years 12+ years
Milk (2-3 servings per day)
Milk 4 oz 6 oz 8 oz 8 oz
Cheese ½ oz 1 oz 1 oz 1.5 oz
Yogurt 4 oz 6 oz 6 oz 6 oz
Vegetables  (3-5 servings per day)
Cooked ¼ cup ¼-½ cup ½ cup ½ cup
Raw ½ cup ½ cup 1 cup 1 cup
Fruit (2-4 servings per day)
Raw ½ small 1 small ½ medium 1 medium
Canned ¼ cup ½ cup ½ cup ½ cup
Juice, 100% 3 oz 4 oz 4 oz 4 oz
Grains (5 or less servings per day)
Bread ½ slice 1 slice 1 slice 1 slice
Pasta, rice,
hot cereal, cooked
¼ cup 1/3 cup ½ cup ½ cup
Cold cereal ½ cup 1 cup 1 cup 1 cup
Crackers 2-3 4-6 6 6
Meat & Beans  (2-3 servings per day)
Beef & poultry 1-2 oz 2 oz 2-3 oz 3 oz
Fish 1-2 oz 1-2 oz 3-4 oz 5-6 oz
Eggs ½ 1 1 1
Peanut butter 1 Tbsp 1-2 Tbsp 2 Tbsp 2 Tbsp
Beans ¼ cup ¼-½  cup ½ cup ½ cup

When working towards healthier portions a few suggestions can make the transition much easier.

  • Try using a smaller plate. A nine-inch plate, or smaller is recommended for adults and a six inch plate may be best for children under 12 years of age.
  • Load up on non-starchy vegetables. By filling half of the plate with non-starchy vegetables, one can ensure that they won’t have room for extra servings of protein or starch.
  • Drink up. Enjoy 8 ounces of water before and/or after the meal to ensure that the increased appetite is not triggered by thirst.

Overall, the holiday season doesn’t have to equal weight gain. Experiment with the tactics above to start a new family holiday tradition!

November Recipe: Tasty Taco Bar


  • 6 whole wheat, low-fat tortillas (small)
  • 1 lb ground turkey breast
  • 1 Tbsp cumin
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 3 cups lettuce, chopped
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 cup low-fat cheese, shredded
  • 1 can fat-free refried beans

Begin by washing and preparing all vegetables.

Place a medium sauté pan on the stove and place thawed ground turkey into the pan. Heat the turkey over medium heat.

Begin to brown the turkey over medium heat; stirring occasionally. Cook the turkey until the juices run clear and there is no pink in sight.

Turn off the stove and drain the ground turkey in a colander and clean the sauté pan.

Return the cooked turkey to a clean sauté pan and add 1-2 tbsp water, cumin and chili powder. Cover the turkey and allow the meat to simmer for 5-10 minutes.

While the turkey is simmering, place all other prepared ingredients in separate dishes.

Warm the refried beans.

Serve the turkey warm and all other ingredients chilled.

Age-Appropriate Portions
About Cassie Vanderwall, MS, RD, CD, CDE, CPT
Cassie Vanderwall is a registered dietitian, certified personal trainer and certified diabetes educator at the UW Health Pediatric Fitness Clinic and Pediatric Diabetes Clinic. Cassie is passionate about empowering families by equipping them with the tools they need to achieve a healthier life.

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Keep laundry “pods” out of reach of small children

shutterstock_198793391If you use “pods” to do laundry, please consider being more careful with where they are being kept.  A recent Pediatrics report documents more than 17,000 exposures – more than one per hour – to potentially dangerous laundry products over the past two years. Parents of young children should be careful when storing the packets that contain highly-concentrated detergent.

Laundry “pods” are single-use packets of detergent enclosed in a membrane that dissolves in water when added to a load. For busy moms and dads they’re a convenient start to a quick wash.  But with their bright colors and easily-punctured lining, they’ve also proven attractive to kids’ curious eyes and vulnerable to their prying hands.

The problem with these products is if you handle them with damp or wet hands, they dissolve almost immediately. Children can get the detergent on their hands and in their eyes. If a small child puts one in his mouth, it releases a highly-concentrated dose of detergent.

These concentrated doses can lead to vomiting (experienced by half of the 17,230 exposure cases), coughing or choking (13 percent), and eye pain or irritation (11 percent), as documented by the Pediatrics study, which counted exposures for the years 2012 and 2013 for children younger than 6 years old. One child in Florida died following exposure to a laundry pod.

For about half of the exposures children were seen in a health care facility, which is more than double the number of referrals you would expect to see with a laundry product.

On a positive note, from April to December 2013 reports of exposure from laundry packets decreased by 25 percent. This may be attributable to campaigns organized by public health organizations and poison centers. A change in industry behavior may have also helped. Some of the companies made the containers opaque, so the child might not see the bright colors. Some put latches on the containers, making them somewhat more difficult to open for a child.

Parents with small children should consider using ‘conventional’ laundry products that are not as concentrated or potentially toxic. If you do use laundry packets keep them in a locked cupboard that is out of a child’s reach.





Keep laundry “pods” out of reach of small children
About Donna Lotzer
Donna Lotzer is a clinical pharmacist and the UW Health Poison Education Coordinator.

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Stay Healthy During Cold and Flu Season

Boy Hand WashingWhen the seasons start to change, pediatricians sense more than just winter in the air. Common colds, pink eyes, ear infections, coughs and the flu are guaranteed to arrive, just like the snow.

While most common illnesses will be over relatively quickly, it can be difficult to watch your child experience the symptoms once, let alone several times, during the season. Fortunately, there are several steps we can take to prevent illnesses.

Wash Those Hands

  • Use warm water when you wash your hands. Warm water is better at killing germs, and reduces the risk of burning yourself with water that is too hot.
  • Use whatever soap you like (antibacterial soap isn’t necessary — any soap will do.)
  • Work up a generous lather on both sides of your hands, your wrists, and between your fingers. Don’t forget to wash around your nails – germs’ favorite finger hideaway. Train your kids and yourself to sing the birthday song or count to 20 as you wash your hands.
  • Rinse with warm water and dry well with a clean towel.
  • Wash your hands often. Especially before eating or touching food in any way, after using the bathroom, blowing your nose or coughing, touching animals, playing or participating in sports or visiting a sick friend.
  • Hand sanitizer is a wonderful innovation (though it should be used in addition to, not instead of, hand washing). Use it frequently but carefully with your children.

Keep Your Hands to Yourself

Try not to touch your face. Eyes, mouths and noses serve as wonderful habitats for cold and flu bugs. Disinfect door handles, toys and other surfaces. My children may have labeled me as the super-safety mom, but they have listened.

Cover That Cough

It really is adorable to see all these children covering their mouths with their elbows (the vampire cough). Now, if we could only teach adults to cover their mouths with coughing and sneezing and throw away used tissues.

Get Immunized

For pediatricians, Ben Franklin’s old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” couldn’t be more true. Hence, the following tidbit on the Influenza vaccine: every member of your family should get the flu shot.

Influenza is primarily a respiratory illness which can last at least a week. Parents ask me if the vaccine is safe.  It is. The vaccine’s few side effects range from soreness at the injection site to fever. But, the effects of the Influenza illness can go well beyond just a few days of discomfort. Coughing, sore throats, high fevers, rigors (full body shakes), body sweats, clawing headaches and body aches that possess your being. And that is just you – the adult. Imagine then the experience of an infant or young child with Influenza. I cannot. Every year I sympathize so much with my patients who get sick with it.

Get the facts about six flu and flu vaccine myths.

Finally, good nutrition and rest, along with exercise and good mental health (and stress management) can only help you and your family during sick season. Sick season will come and it will go and we will all be happier with its exit.

Stay Healthy During Cold and Flu Season
About Caroline R. Paul, MD
Dr. Caroline R. Paul is a pediatrician at UW Health West Clinic.

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