With Thanksgiving right around the corner, it’s that time of year during which many of us are counting our blessings and pausing to appreciate what’s really important in life.
But are we raising our kids to be thankful, as well?
The importance of gratitude cannot be denied, and the benefits of gratitude are well-documented.
Studies have shown that grateful kids are not only happier kids, but are also more likely to have higher grades, more friends and more life satisfaction than their more materialistic counterparts. Grateful children are also less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, have behavior problems at school or suffer from depression.
So it’s no wonder parents are wondering how to help their children foster gratitude.
According to the experts, encouraging “please” and “thank you” is a great place to start. (You can even role play saying thank you and using manners with stuffed animals!)
But true gratitude – and the empathy and compassion that comes with it – is a long-term process and requires real effort on the part of parents.
Here are some simple and concrete tips for fostering a strong sense of gratitude in your children:
Tip #1: Buy Less Stuff.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Although it’s difficult to say “no” in a culture that celebrates consumerism and all things new and shiny, that’s exactly what’s necessary. It’s hard to teach thankfulness to kids if they get everything they ask for.
So if you’re serious about raising thankful kids you’ll have to say “no” even when it seems easier – and maybe more fun – to say “yes” to the new toy.
One clever psychologist suggests having “look days” and “buy days.”
Before you head out for the day’s activities, let your kids know that it’s just a “look day.” Maybe you’ll see trees at the park, or toys in the store or souvenirs at the museum, but today you’re just looking and enjoying.
Other days can be “buy days,” when you purchase things. Of course, more days should be “look days” than “buy days.”
Here’s a helpful tip: Think of saying “no” to new materials things as saying “yes” to appreciating what you already have.
Tip #2: Focus on Togetherness During Holidays and Birthdays.
Has you ever left the holiday season or your kid’s birthday party feeling overwhelmed by all the material things? Holiday gifts and birthday gifts are wonderful, but sometimes there is so much stuff that it’s hard to keep track of it and really feel grateful for what we’ve received.
To avoid an unreasonable amount of gifts and materials things at holiday time, consider Secret Santa exchanges where everyone receives one or two special items.
You can also opt to gift an experience rather than a toy. Buying a membership to a local museum, taking a fun trip to a nearby destination, going to an indoor trampoline park, or gifting music or art classes are all examples of an experience that can be given as a gift in lieu of a physical present.
If you can’t avoid the deluge of gifts, be sure to keep the focus on celebrating and spending time with friends and family rather than the gifts.
After the holidays or the birthday party, help your child express gratitude for their gifts by writiing thank-you notes to each family member and friend for the gifts they received from them. Young children might start out just drawing a picture and scribbling their name. As they get older, it’s nice to explain in the note why the like the gift and what they’ll do with it.
Writing these small notes will help foster an “attitude of gratitude” rather than a sense of entitlement to the gifts their received.
Tip #3: Start a Gratitude Practice.
If you don’t already, it might be nice to incorporate some kind of thankfulness ritual into everyday life. It’s the best way to help get kids into a gratitude habit that they carry with them for life, and to help them focus on the positive things that happened in their day.
At the dinner table, for example, you might start out the meal with everyone mentioning one thing they’re grateful for from that day. Some families say grace or a prayer before their meal to give thanks for the food they’re about to eat.
Bedtime is another great time for kids to reflect on the good things in their life and what they’re thankful for. Parents can model being grateful for the little things by sharing the small blessings in their life that they are thankful for like a warm bath, hot coffee in the morning, and a hug from their kids.
When there’s a particularly rough day, families can talk about tough times in the past that ended up having a silver lining. We can’t force a positive attitude, but we can model what having a positive attitude looks like and sounds like.
Younger kids might enjoy creating a gratitude jar. They can decorate a mason jar with paint, fabric, stickers, etc. Each day they write something they are grateful for on small slips of paper or a popsicle stick and place it in the jar. It’s a good way to visually show kids how many wonderful things are already in their lives that they are grateful for.
For older kids (and adults), a gratitude journal is a good place to jot down a list of the things and people you are grateful for. Research shows that this is a powerful way to transform the way we look at the world.
Whatever it is, the important thing is to dedicate one time per day to building gratitude. Does a little something on a daily basis goes a long way to raising a grateful child who is aware of their blessings.
Tip #4: Assign Household Chores.
To fully appreciate the work that gets done around the house, kids need to participate regularly and consistently in the household chores. They’re more likely to be truly grateful for the things that are done for them if they’ve experienced the kind of work that goes into it.
Children can be assigned age-appropriate chores from a young age. Even three year old can begin to have sense of responsibility by being expected to brush their teeth, get dressed, and pick up their toys. Of course they will need some help at first, but the goal is to have them do it on their own and take pride in their own sense of responsibility.
Simple ways that older kids can help around the house include setting the table, loading and emptying the dishwasher, sweeping the floors, clearing and wiping the table, caring for younger siblings, folding their laundry, bringing in the mail, feeding and walking the dog, making their bed, and more.
Chore charts are helpful to make expectations for household tasks clear and provide motivation and reminders. There are free printable chore charts all over the internet if you want to get started right way. There are plenty of options for more durable, magnetic chore charts that can be hung on the refrigerator or in another central location.
Some parents like to give a small allowance or reward at the end of the week. Giving an allowance can provide another opportunity for kids to learn the value of hard work, and to begin to learn how to manage their own money responsibly.
In the same way, to fully appreciate their food and the preparation that goes into it, kids can actually help in the preparation. Cooking together can be a fun way to help kids see how much work and love goes into preparing family meals.
Consider buying an inexpensive apron and dull knife to enable them to help out in the kitchen and feel proud of their accomplishments when the meal is served.
Tip #5: Give back the community.
Another great way to foster feelings of gratitude, empathy and compassion in your children is to involve them in service projects and lending a helping hand in the community.
Schedule a special day in which the whole family dedicated their time to a charity or non-profit organization that is close to your heart. This could be once a year, or once a month, depending on your family’s schedule.
There are so many ways to serve the community as a family. No matter your child’s age, there are projects big and small that can help them connect to others in a meaningful way and be more grateful for the things they have.
You can visit nursing homes together, write letters to veterans and service members overseas, serve meals at a local shelter, create art projects for an elderly neighbor, put together donation baskets for families in need, collect stuffed animals for children’s hospitals, make sandwiches for hungry people in your community.
Check with your church, synagogue, or mosque to see if they offer any opportunities you can get involved in. For some local ideas, head over to Kids Impact Community or Sunbeam Kids.
Tip #6: Read books about gratitude and generosity
Reading books about gratitude is a great way to raise a thankful child. There’s no question that small children learn through the stories they read, and the books that are read to them.
Seek out children’s books that emphasize being generous and displaying gratefulness. After you read them, chat with your kids about the book and see if they can find a way that they relate to the book personally. For example of books about gratitude, you can start here and here.
Tip #7: Do as you say
As with anything else, we parents have to be living examples of what it means to be grateful. Grateful parents raise grateful people.
Model gratitude in your own life.Talk about what you’re grateful for. Thank your child when they deserve it. Take joy in the simple things in life. Look on the bright side of things and talk about it. Do random acts of kindness and let your children see you do it. Tell your children you are grateful for them. Model treating everyone with respect. Seek to live your life in a way that prioritizes people over things.
Gratitude may be an abstract concept, but at the end of the day, our children learn most from our actions. Being a good example for them is one of the greatest gift we can give them.
And Happy Thanksgiving, Milwaukee With Kids readers! We’re thankful for your continued support.