Cultivating Gratitude in your Children

First, I would like to extend my warmest thanks to all of you who are a part of the Productive Mama family. Your business, friendship and community mean the world to me.

Thanksgiving has many meanings. In simply looking at the actual title of the holiday, it is often a time to give thanks. And that can get lost in the hustle and bustle, preparations, travel and cooking leading up to the BIG meal. Yet there are a few very simple ways to highlight thankfulness before the hustle even begins. Beyond that, it is the weeks FOLLOWING Thanksgiving that can be the biggest challenge to parents AND children in today’s world. We quickly shift into “I-want-give-me-gift-presents-wrapping paper-santa-where’s the next one-is that it-MORE” world from which it is very hard to hide. So what can we do in the following weeks to foster gratitude in our families that will then carry over to January and life in general? Research has shown that grateful people are in general happier, more satisfied and have lower levels of depression and stress. Grateful people make for a better world!

In encouraging attitudes of Give, rather than Get, there are the grander gestures most people hear about during the holidays: volunteerism at soup kitchens, food banks, nursing homes, children’s hospitals, homeless shelters. This is a great way for older children to instantly see how they can help and how that help impacts others. For those with younger children, this can be difficult, as toddlers don’t always make it easy to stay on task while sorting or serving food. Giving Trees or other Adopt-a-Family programs are a great alternative. The children can help purchase gifts for kids who have less than they do. This has always been a difficult, yet rewarding, lesson for my children. We choose children that match their gender and age and so they can easily choose items that will match their own interests. They have no problem finding items to purchase. And then comes the usual tug of wanting the items for themselves. Take advantage and discuss those feelings, along with the feelings of the children getting the gifts.

These are important actions during a time when most actions tend to contribute to buying, cooking, cleaning, wrapping and rushing. But there are smaller actions and daily tasks that can, over time, lend to cultivating gratefulness in yourself and your children.

As you take out Thanksgiving decorations, start a gratitude notebook or make a gratitude chain. A notebook can easily become a family tradition and wonderful keepsake. Each day, have each child write or draw they appreciate and discuss it. Or they can do it privately and you can all discuss a few of them each week. And this can culminate in a Thanksgiving meal reading or sharing. A chain is similar to the traditional Advent Calendar. Each day, take a paper strip and write on it an item for which you are thankful. Then attach it to the previous day’s item to form a chain. By the time the Thanksgiving meal arrives, you have a decoration for the room and a conversation piece for the meal. This can easily move on to Advent, if your family celebrates Christmas or another winter holiday.

Turn off TV at this time of year to avoid commercials! Commercials spark desires for items we never knew we needed and they powerfully affect the impressionable imaginations of the young.

Make and appreciate homemade gifts. Making gifts allows for time to discuss the receiver, their part in your life, and why this gift is made especially for them. When you receive a homemade gift, point out why it’s so special to you.

If homemade gifts aren’t happening (I’m a NON CRAFTY mama, so I get it), make sure your children buy gifts for their siblings, parents, cousins and other relatives.  This really hit home when I saw this SNL skit:

Watching that really sparked a few thoughts in me, as well as some laughs. Mainly that kids NEED to be involved in the GIFTING process.  First, it reminds them that gifts don’t just show up.  There’s effort involved, a budget, thought, wrapping and WORK.  Next, they appreciate gifts they receive from their siblings, even if they are simple, because they understand all that went into it.  Finally, the gifts represent true and sincere love, not just what they GOT.

Go through your child’s room to find items to donate to others. Aside from the practical need to make space for other items that will find their way to your home during the holidays, this activity highlights how much our children have and how their wants and needs are different. You can also discuss how the needs and wants of all children are very similar and how they can help fill some of those in others.

Make Black Friday into Give Back Friday. Instead of shopping, give back in some way. This can be one of the grander volunteer opportunities listed above or taking on another project, such as fundraising or helping an older neighbor or relative. Or maybe this is a good day to sort through rooms for donation items. Certainly, there’s a fitting activity for your family that can live out the lessons you want to teach.

While the ideas so far are holiday-specific, the next ones can be used at any time. Use your story time to read stories that spark conversations. A collection of short stories is a great way to engage young children in small chunks of time. And most quality short stories have a lesson to learn or moral to discuss. These can be geared toward your families values and certainly thankfulness. I also like to highlight how happy children were with very little in my children’s favorite stories: Little House on the Prairie books, the Betsy-Tacy series, The Secret Garden, Little Women and more.

Don’t hold back in gratefulness with your kids. Instead of just the usual “Good job,” tell your kids what you appreciate about them and/or the job at hand. “That really helped me get that job done quickly.” “Wow! You have a knack for organizing.” “Done already? That’s the way to stay on task!” Just be sincere and use your own words to show the qualities and characteristics you truly appreciate. By example, you are teaching them to appreciate what you do for them and how others help them.

Make use of dinner conversations to share gratitude. Ask your kids, “What are the three best things about today so far?” Share your three.

Revive the long, lost art of the thank you note. For young kids, make a template they can fill in or help them write out their own words.

Re-instate grace or a moment of thanks before meals. Such a simple gesture can be profound.

Because most of us have plenty, our children don’t have much to compare with their own situations. Every few years, I check out a book called Material World: A Global Family Portrait by Menzel and Mann. This book shows photos of families around the world standing outside of their homes with ALL their possessions. I’m sure you can imagine the stark contrast of the family in an African hut compared to the North American family. But this is difficult for many kids to imagine. So the photos do all the telling. Don’t lecture or force a lesson. Just look at the pictures with your kids. You could gently point out how much the kids probably love their toys, just as your children do. No need to point out the simplicity of the toys (if there are any).

Most of our children do not lack for much, so cultivating gratitude can be a challenge. The answer isn’t necessarily withholding from them in any way, but in giving even more in the form of example, conversation, and your OWN gratitude. And so I close with a THANK YOU to all of you for all you do and for reading these thoughts of mine, which come from the heart. I have appreciated your feedback and the time you spend with my words.

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  1. I agree with you that encouraging and teaching gratitude is extremely important for children! It’s also never to early to start. Love this post!

  2. I love the suggestions you listed! We just delivered handmade holiday cards to my son’s preschool teachers today. I loved seeing how proud he was to deliver them along with a gift. Thank you for including ideas for little ones in your post!

  3. Thanks for the great tips! I think it’s so easy to just give give give to your kids because you want them to have the world, but it’s important to teach them this side of things as well. I hope I can pass this message on to my daughter as she grows up.

  4. This is so true! “Turn off TV at this time of year to avoid commercials! Commercials spark desires for items we never knew we needed and they powerfully affect the impressionable imaginations of the young.”

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