Around Thanksgiving, many of us turn our minds to what we are grateful for, and for parents and caregivers, that often leads us to ask a few questions.
For instance, “Why are we only doing this once a year?” “What exactly does gratitude look like?” And, most importantly, “How can I teach my children gratitude?”
While Thanksgiving only comes once a year, there’s no reason that gratefulness can’t be a primary part of your family’s life year-round. But first, we need to establish what gratitude is and what it is not.
What Gratitude Is Not
There are two ways gratitude gets misunderstood. First, gratitude is not glossing over the hard things in life, or saying “everything is great” when it’s not. Rather, gratitude is the ability to look for the good in a hard situation, without ignoring the difficulties.
Secondly, gratitude is not an “at least” perspective. For example, if someone close to you dies and a well-meaning person says, “at least you can be thankful they aren’t suffering anymore,” that’s not gratitude. That’s a platitude and it’s not helpful.
What Gratitude Is
Gratitude is a feeling of thankfulness, but it goes beyond that. Gratitude is not just being thankful, but also the ability to find something to be thankful for even in a hard situation, as mentioned above. Gratitude in its fullest form is also expressed, either through words or through an action that shows thankfulness.
Research shows that a grateful attitude is a key part of happiness, and that those who show gratitude feel more positive emotions and are better able to build strong relationships and deal with difficult situations in life.1 Thankful feelings even release endorphins, our body’s “feel good” chemical, which helps override negativity.
Gratefulness is also a strong protection against an attitude of entitlement, or assuming everything should go your way. So, it’s no wonder parents want to help their children develop a thankful mindset!
Tips for Instilling Gratitude in Children
Even when we understand what gratitude is and what it isn’t, it can be challenging to come up with ways to help thankfulness grow in our home. However, there are several ways you can help your children start practicing an “attitude of gratitude” and there are a few listed below for you to try.
We are an example for our kids, and they learn as they watch us, especially since we are their first and most important Adult Role Model (Asset #14). We also need to remember that our kids might not be expressing gratitude because they simply haven’t learned how yet, and that’s an opportunity for us to help teach them. Much of gratitude is learning to notice things we can be thankful for. So it’s important for children to see their caregivers expressing gratitude.
For example, you could point out the pretty fall leaves as you drive to the grocery store and express how thankful you are for the changing seasons. Or you could share something you were thankful for at work as you and your child(ren) walk home from the bus stop. Then engage your child(ren) by asking them to share what they are thankful for, either in general or maybe from their day at school.
This not only fosters gratitude, it’s also a wonderful element of Positive Family Communication (Asset #2). As you make verbal gratitude a habit, your kids will pick up on it and start trying it themselves.
2. Practical Gratitude Activities
Just like using a muscle makes it stronger, the more we practice gratitude, the more it becomes a habit. Kids benefit from the opportunity to practice flexing their thankfulness muscle in multiple small ways. For instance, some kids enjoy writing down things they are thankful for. Even just choosing a few things to write about each day can start to cultivate a thankful heart. If your children are too young to write, you could have them draw a picture of what they are grateful for.
Another option is to share a high and low from the day with the family, using an activity called “Rose and Thorn.” Each family member shares their favorite part of the day (Rose), which is naturally something that person is thankful for. They also share a hard part of the day (Thorn), which underscores the principle above about noticing the good in our lives without ignoring the difficult.
Bonus: These exercises are a wonderful example of quality interaction during constructive Time at Home (Asset #20).
3. Bookending the Day with Gratefulness
Since the way we spend our morning often sets the tone for the day, consider starting your day with gratitude. It might be that the first sip of coffee makes you thankful, or that you are grateful for the quiet of the morning before all the kids wake up. If nothing else, the fact that you woke up again this morning is a great starting point! Once this feels more natural, you might ask your children to share things they appreciate in the morning as well.
Then in the evening, you can reflect back on your day to seek out those moments you were thankful for. Your family can all participate by doing the Rose and Thorn activity, or maybe you talk this through as you tuck in your kids at night.
However you choose to do it, starting and ending the day with thankfulness will go far toward creating an environment of gratitude in your home.
A Word of Encouragement
While some people are naturally thankful, not everyone is wired this way. But take heart! The good news is that gratefulness can be learned. So, if you are willing to try some new ideas for creating gratitude, you can grow in your ability to see the good, to notice the positive, and to be thankful for it. And when you take the lead in expressing thankfulness, your children will follow.