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The Focused Student: Teaching gratitude and virtue from everyday moments

What are you grateful for this holiday season?

As turkey time turns to Christmas bells, it’s once again the season for gratitude. My favorite definition of gratitude is, “the readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” It is a great sentiment that can be expressed more than just seasonally. It is when we see others in less-than-ideal situations that we should appreciate the good fortune we have. But this needs to be pointed out to children.

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When I was growing up in La Cañada many years ago, our junior and senior high youth group at La Cañada Presbyterian Church would always visit a few retirement homes and sing Christmas carols, to the delight of the residents, some of whom would sing along or wave their hands as if conducting us. I always felt better when I left. I was grateful that my terrible voice could actually make someone happy. I felt good and came home with a renewed sense of worth. Those kinds of acts transferred to other “returned acts of kindness.”

So, how do you teach gratitude or other values, ethics and virtues?

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Once again, this starts in the home and it starts with parents living what they teach and teaching what they live. When you have young children, one way of teaching values is through finding “teachable moments” in situations that come up naturally.

That means you need to spend time with your children. It may be going to the park, taking a walk, or going bicycle riding. Seeing a bug crossing the sidewalk, do you step on it or let it go, and why? Do you respect those who wait on you in restaurants and at stores, or are you dismissive or abusive? What values does a fairy tale convey? How do you show gratitude to individuals in your life and acknowledge the goodness conveyed to you by others?

Another way values are taught is through a church, temple or other religious institution. I know many parents who got involved in a church more for their children to find values than for themselves. Sunday school, youth groups and rites of passages all teach a number of positive values.

Finally, schools can play an important role in helping to teach values. Private schools can be a little more overt about it, particularly if the school has a Christian, Muslim, Jewish or other religious base. Values are usually built into the curriculum in the form of religious classes. But public schools can achieve the same goal through content in English, philosophy and history classes as well as the standards of respect and conduct expected in general from students by the faculty and staff.

Through the selection of materials, teachers and administrators can place an emphasis on the actions of both historical and fictional characters and open discussions about what was and was not representative of good value choices.

We should be teaching values, ethics or virtues. In fact, not teaching children values and ethics may be one of the great un-doings of our society. The lessons start at home. This holiday season is a good time to begin the process, but its ultimate success requires a year-round commitment of time and effort.

What are you grateful for? Share the answer to that with your children this holiday season.

ROBERT FRANK is the executive director of the Hillside School and Learning Center in La Cañada. He holds a master’s of science degree in special education and has more than 40 years of teaching experience. His column appears on the last Thursday of each month. He can be reached at frank@hillsideforsuccess.org.

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