It's Saturday, and Mom is wearily unloading groceries - a chore she's performed hundreds of times. Meanwhile, Dad drives twelve-year-old Sasha to soccer practice. It seems to him that his driving duties never end. Before going to soccer, as Sasha cleans her room she thinks to herself, "Even though they bug me to clean my room, they never seem to notice when I do." 6-year-old Max makes his bed without anyone telling him to, but his mom makes him do it over because the sheets were lumpy.

These family members are likely to feel unappreciated. Over time, feeling unappreciated can lead to resentment and a sense of isolation. How can a family address this situation?

Forming the Appreciation Habit

Expressing appreciation to family members and encouraging them to do the same is an easy-to-use tool that helps families feel connected and encouraged.

Appreciations are specific, detailed expressions of what one values about a person. For example, a parent might say to a child, "Thank you for helping me carry the groceries in; it would have taken me twice as long to do it myself." This is much more powerful than the more generic, "Thanks for your help today."

Children can learn to express appreciations as well. Young children may find it challenging to be specific and may say something general such as, "I like you because you're nice, Mommy." Given time and modeling by their parents, children will learn to express more descriptive appreciations such as, "Mom, thank you for helping me learn to ride a bike."

Family Meetings

While parents can offer appreciations any time of the day, many families find it useful to have a structured plan for exchanging them.

One method is to offer appreciations at a weekly Family Meeting, during which the family calendar is reviewed, family fun is decided upon and household tasks are distributed. Parents can provide a model by exchanging appreciations with each other and with each child and then inviting the children to offer their own appreciations.

Sandy, a mother from Rockville, fondly remembers the first time her 6-year-old daughter expressed a specific appreciation to her 2-year-old brother, Jon. "Little Jon got down out of his chair, ran around the table and threw his arms around Samantha. Having the structure of appreciations in the Family Meeting made them happen at least once a week."

Parents enjoy appreciations as much as children do. One mother from Gaithersburg remembers having a hard time convincing her husband of the value of holding weekly Family Meetings. The first time he joined a meeting, his young daughters (ages 5 and 3) offered him their appreciations. That meeting marked the first time this young mom saw her husband cry. It was a touching moment for everyone, and the father immediately saw the benefits of a weekly Family Meeting and appreciation exchange.

Special Plate

Introducing a "Special Plate" to your family routine can also allow for appreciations to be shared. Once a week, a family member's place at the dinner table is set with a special plate, made of a different material or color than the others. At the beginning of the meal, the person with the special plate receives an appreciation from each member of the family. The next week, it is a different person's turn. Parents are included in the rotation, as it is important that the children not only receive appreciations, but also learn the skill of offering them.

One Chevy Chase mom has noticed a shift in her attitude during the meal preparation on Special Plate night. "Instead of focusing on the annoyances of cooking and misbehavior, I instead turn my attention toward the kindnesses my child showed that week as I decide what I will share at dinner."

A grandmother from Silver Spring raised her children with the tradition of Special Plate. The tradition lives on in the homes of her two adult daughters who now have children of their own. "Their families have even brought out the Special Plate for me. Their appreciations are always very specific, whether about the color of my nail polish, singing bedtime songs or playing a silly game."

A Skill That Makes the World a Better Place

Children who grow up learning to express appreciations in overt ways do it without thinking and bring that practice with them to other parts of their lives.

Darlene, a Bethesda mom, has made the practice of appreciations part of her family life. A number of parents on her son's baseball team approached Darlene to say what a nice kid her son was. She wondered, "What the heck is my son doing that parents are making a point to find me and tell me about him?" One day, Darlene caught the tail-end of her son's baseball game. Wherever her son was on the field, she heard him yelling very specific, detailed words of encouragement to each of his teammates. "I immediately understood why the parents noticed him - it was an encouraging experience all around!"

After a heavy rain, a 4-year-old boy whose family practices appreciations was recently observed helping earthworms off the sidewalk and back into the soil. As he tossed them onto the wet grass, he was heard chanting, "Come on little fellers, you're good diggers. You can make some new holes." He had brought his skill of encouragement to his worm friends!

Imagine, what you might hear during a Family Meeting in the home of the family we met earlier. Mom is told by her husband, "Thanks for keeping our house supplied with everything we need. Groceries, batteries and toilet paper - it's a lot to keep track of and yet you stay on top of it." Mom suddenly feels that people notice. Sasha says to Dad, "Thanks, Dad, for driving me to my soccer games and practices. I know it takes a lot of your time." Dad responds that he enjoys the one-on-one time with Sasha. Mom comments to Max, "I noticed you made your bed this morning all by yourself. Thank you." Max stands a little taller. Each family member will move into their week feeling connected, encouraged and ready to bring encouragement and connection to others in their corners of the world.


Maureen McElroy LGMFT (maureenmcelroy.com) is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who sees individuals, couples and families in her Bethesda, Md. practice. She is also a Certified Parent Educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (pepparent.org) , which offers classes for parents of children ages 2 ½ - 18.