I recently attended a conference where I learned that expressing gratitude to someone causes your brain to release the chemical oxytocin which causes you to feel trust, bonding, and increased feelings of love for that person. As soon as I heard that, I immediately texted my husband and thanked him for watching the kids so that I could attend the conference. I’m embarrassed to admit that my next thought was, “I’m going to make my children thank me more so they will have more love and appreciation for me.”. . . because nothing warms the heart like coerced gratitude, right? I imagined myself bringing dinner to the table, and my sons following our new “thank Mom for her hard work or surrender your electronic devices for all eternity” rule. I quickly realized that was probably not going to be effective.
I returned home and found myself snowed-in for the day with three rambunctious boys (ages 14, 10, and 8). The Holy Spirit began to deal with my heart, and I realized that instead of trying to force my children to be more grateful, He was asking me to model it for them. I could see the wisdom in this because by 3:30 that afternoon, I was in desperate need of a big surge of oxytocin and increased feelings of love for my kids. Maybe I’m the only parent that has felt that way.
Over the course of the next week, I began to be intentional about thanking my children. I would thank them for unloading the dishwasher, or working hard on their homework, or practicing piano or guitar and filling our home with music. I thanked them for treating each other well and for cleaning their rooms. These are all things that are required of them. They hadn’t gone above and beyond what was expected of them or even done these things without being asked, so it hadn’t occurred to me to thank them. It also became a good practice in the art of “catch them doing something good” which I’m not naturally great at.
I don’t know that I instantly felt a surge of loving feelings for my kids, but the dynamic and tone of our relationships began to shift almost immediately. We all appreciate being appreciated, and children are no different. When I thanked them, they sat up a little straighter and seemed to take more pride in what they were doing. They felt better about themselves, and strangely I felt better about me. I found that quite often I was thanking them when I would normally be redirecting them. If they were starting to lose interest in doing their schoolwork, when I would normally say, “You need to focus and get your work done,” I would say, “Thank you for getting your work done.” Or when the dishwasher unloading was turning into a utensil sword fight/ninja showdown, instead of telling them to get back to work, I would say, “Thank you for unloading the dishwasher.” Instead of feeling beaten down, they would say (somewhat skeptically at first), “You’re welcome.” One of my sons did ask me why I was thanking him. I told him that I appreciated it when he did what he was supposed to do, and this was true. Instead of taking their obedience for granted, I found I was truly grateful for it.
Not only was their reaction to me much more positive and less defensive, I got to stop constantly being the Head Enforcer and Chief Nag. I don’t have the scientific data to back this up, but I’m pretty sure that nothing awesome happens in your brain when you nag people to do things all day. It turns out, not only do my children like “Thankful Mom” more than “Nagging Mom,” I do too.
Gratitude, and the oxytocin that comes with it, not only fills us with love but also a feeling of connection. It wires our brains to feel a bond of trust and safety. More and more, being thankful is giving me a positive connection to my kids throughout our day. Our interactions get to become less about me making sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, and more about being on the same team, being a family, and loving and appreciating each other. The same brain chemistry that bonds us to one another also bonds us and gives us connection to our Creator. When we become more aware of the blessings that fill our lives–things we often take for granted, we are teaching our hearts and minds that we can trust our heavenly Father and that He is faithful. The commandment to “Give thanks,” is repeated over and over throughout Scripture because God knows it is life, love, and connection to our hearts, minds, and souls.
My kids aren’t spontaneously thanking me yet for the many things I do for them throughout the day, but I think that will come in time. I’m learning that what I practice is far more important than what I preach. And God is helping me love my children better by showing them gratitude.
What about you? Does it come naturally to thank your children, spouse, and co-workers? Have you noticed a difference in how you feel about them when you do?
Jenni McCadams is a wife, mother, photographer, and graphic artist who currently lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado with her husband, three boys (ages 13, 10, and 8), and their giant goldendoodle Max. She loves interior design, hiking, growing things, and is officially the world’s worst meal planner.