The minute holiday decorations hit the stores (so, you know, August), kids begin inundating mom and dad with a constant stream of statements that start with, “I want…” As a parent, it can be frustrating to feel that kids don’t appreciate the good things they already have in their lives — particularly the things that can’t be bought.
The good news is that gratitude — a feeling that can be expressed through thankfulness, kindness, good manners and giving — is a habit that can be practiced, and parents can begin to lay the foundation as early as the toddler years. But no matter how old kids are, it’s never too late to begin teaching gratitude. Get your family started with these six tips.
Model the behavior.
Kids take behavior cues from their parents, so it’s important to be mindful of how you express gratitude. Start by consistently modeling basic manners, respect and kindness toward family members. Make an effort to talk about what you are grateful for — a great meal, a healthy family, a partner taking care of household duties. Kids will pick up on your gratitude, and with time, they’ll follow your lead.
Acknowledge kind gestures.
Ever wonder why a child insists on repeating bad behavior even when she gets in trouble? Often attention — even if it’s negative — is reward enough for a young kid. Spotlight the positive instead. Recognize and praise your child when you see her being kind — sharing a snack, treating her toys with respect by putting them away with care, or helping a sibling or friend.
The concept of gratitude isn’t concrete and can be difficult to explain to younger children. A craft or project can drive home what it means to be and feel grateful. Here are three easy projects to try:
1. Gratitude Jar
What you need: A mason jar (or other container); stickers and/or ribbons to decorate; strips of paper; writing utensils
How to: A gratitude jar is a simple way for the family to express gratitude year round. Decorate a mason jar with stickers and ribbons — let kids get creative. Find a place to display the jar and leave slips of paper near it so family members can write down what they are grateful for. Deposit the slips of paper in the jar. At Thanksgiving, empty the jar and read each piece of paper.
2. Tree of Thanks
What you need: Brown, red, orange and yellow construction paper; a larger sheet of white paper; scissors (safety scissors if young kids will be helping); glue stick; pencils and other writing utensils
How to: Cut brown construction paper into the shape of a tree trunk, and glue it to a larger piece of white paper. With a pencil, trace your child’s hand onto red, orange and yellow pieces of construction paper — you’ll want about 5-6 handprints for a smaller tree. Cut the handprints out, and ask your child to write what they are thankful for on each handprint. These will become the tree’s leaves. Glue the handprints to the tree trunk, and display the completed Tree of Thanks where the family can see and reflect on it.
3. A Gratitude Time Capsule
What you need: A mason jar or other clean jar with a tight lid; strips of paper; pens or other writing utensils
How to: Keep kids busy while you cook on Thanksgiving Day by asking them to write down all of the things they are grateful for on slips of paper — help them brainstorm if they are struggling to come up with ideas. Roll the pieces of paper up and drop them into the jar. Secure the lid tightly. Together, find a spot in your yard and bury the jar. Dig up the jar next Thanksgiving, and go through it together, remembering all of the things your kids felt grateful for the year before. Then, create a new Gratitude Capsule.
While being grateful shouldn’t be about comparison, giving back to the community will help cultivate feelings of thankfulness and gratitude, while teaching children to be kind, selfless and giving. Undertaking a service project as a family is a wonderful way to do this. There are plenty of options appropriate for kids of all ages: Participate in a food or coat drive. Go through toys and clothing that are no longer being played with or worn, and choose gently used items to donate to shelters. Adopt a family in need for the holidays and have the kids take an active role in fulfilling the family’s wish list. Making the holidays less about what kids want and more about what others need will help them have more gratitude for what they already have.
Write thank you notes.
During the holidays and throughout the year, set an expectation of writing thank you notes. While this can feel a bit tedious, it’s important for kids to understand that they are not entitled to gifts, but that it is thoughtful and kind for others to think of them. That thoughtfulness should be recognized. Ask younger children to draw a picture in a thank you card. Or, have a thank you note template that can be completed with your help. Once kids have stronger writing skills, they can be responsible for their own thank you notes.
Make gratitude routine.
Teaching kids about gratitude means actively practicing the habit year round — not just during Thanksgiving. Choose a regular family routine that can serve as an anchor to remind everyone to reflect on what they are grateful for — at a weekly family meal or during the nightly bedtime typically works well. Whatever you decide to do, the more you stick to it, the more feeling and expressing gratitude will become a part of your family’s everyday life.