Thanksgiving season is finally here. As we reflect on how strange and relentless the year has been, we can’t help but think of gratitude a little differently these days. Specifically, how do we cultivate a sense of gratitude in younger kids, and how do we renew it for kids who feel like they missed out on everything fun in 2020?
The first thing to remember is that gratitude extends far beyond a simple uttered thank you. At some point or another, we’ve all nudged our kids with “What do we say?” when they accept a gift and forget to acknowledge the giver. But if we want to raise truly grateful and empathetic kids, we need to show them what gratitude looks and feels like – beyond a monotonous thank you that may or may not come from the heart.
The Benefits of Appreciation
Gratitude is a building block for emotional intelligence and overall happiness. Sensitivity, resilience, empathy – all are admirable human traits, and all begin with a foundation of gratitude. Per research in The Science of Gratitude, children have some sense of what gratitude is by age 5. And the roots run deep, so to speak. The sooner gratitude is cultivated, the more ingrained it becomes in a child’s sense of self. What’s more, research suggests that gratitude is literally good for our health. It’s associated with better well-being, general happiness, reduced negativity decreased materialism and more. So, how exactly do we start nurturing gratitude in young kids?
Model an Attitude of Gratitude
In many ways, graciousness is learned behavior. Toddlers are all about mimicking what they see and experience (monkey see, monkey do). With instant gratification the norm for everything these days, from TV shows and movies on demand to same-day shipping, many kids are blissfully oblivious to the art of patience and appreciation. Often, when things don’t go their way, that disappointment disguises itself as ungratefulness. How to remedy this? Make it a point to regularly talk about all that you’re grateful for. Practice mindfulness with kids early and often. Volunteer with your family, if that’s an option for you. And since kindness and gratitude are often interconnected, be sure to model gracious behavior to servers, neighbors, and anyone outside of your immediate circle as well.
Thank the Kids (And Do It Often!)
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we’re raising tiny humans, who are just as deserving of gratitude as they are of praise when they do something right. Try to make it a habit to thank your kids whenever you “catch them” in the act of being helpful or kind. Be sure to call them out whenever you see them putting forth effort, doing something difficult, helping out a sibling, etc. This shouldn’t be confused with overt praise – it’s simply a way to express acknowledgment and appreciation while modeling your own grateful behavior for the kids.
New Tradition: Thankful Pumpkins
Image courtesy of Amy Latta Creations @amylattacreations
One of the tenets of true gratitude is to focus on what you have, not what you don’t. A fun way to do this is by creating a thankful pumpkin – a tradition my family is excited to take on this year. All you need is a Sharpie, a pumpkin, and a few grateful minutes. Every day, with the permanent marker, write something you and your little ones are grateful for directly on the pumpkin. It can be little things like favorite snacks or big things like favorite people. While especially lovely on a white pumpkin, any gourd works great. You can get the kids their own mini gratitude pumpkins or have a shared family pumpkin that you add to each day. We’re smitten with this idea from Amy Latta Creations not just for the ease of implementing but also because it’s a fun challenge to fill an entire pumpkin with blessings large and small.
Identify Favorite Moments at Bedtime
Want to keep the thankful pumpkin idea going year-round? When you tuck the kids into bed, ask them about their favorite moment of the day. Make this a nightly tradition if you can. The idea is to focus on their own personal highlight reels and find silver linings each day. Thoughtful conversations like these help kids see their world through a brighter and more focused lens. Since they’re fixating on what’s good in their lives, this helps build a sense of security and genuine gratitude over time. And even if their favorite part of the day was just eating a lollipop, it’s still nice to hear what specifically brings our children joy. Sometimes it can surprise us!
Make Thank You Notes a Habit
Handwritten notes are a lost art, which is why they’re so delightful to receive unexpectedly in the mail. Encourage your little ones to write or draw thank you notes to express gratitude – whether it’s for tangible gifts, quality time spent with someone, or just a general message of gratitude. Kids can write notes to friends, family members, and teachers, who might especially appreciate such a greeting during the strange new world of distance learning. If your kids are too young to write thank you notes, you can also record and share a quick thank you video on your phone. The more you implement this practice of showing appreciation, the more ingrained it becomes. My beloved writing professor, Carolyn See, famously had this as part of her curriculum at UCLA – students were asked to send five charming notes to anyone they admired. More than two decades later, I still consider this one of the very best life lessons I’ve received.
Play Gratitude Games
Since kids reinforce learning through play, consider framing gratitude within the context of a game. Put a twist on Thanksgiving family football by playing a game of “grateful catch.” Throw a ball back and forth, and each time someone catches it, have them say something they’re thankful for. Ask little ones to think of funny or silly things to keep them engaged. If your kids are older, you can turn the nightly favorite moment conversation into a game as well. Ask them to identify the rose (best part) and thorn (worst/hardest part) of their day. Help them reflect on why those moments had a positive or negative impact and feel free to prompt them if they get stuck. For example, “The pandemic has been super hard, but we’re grateful for all this extra family time.” Some people take the rose and thorn concept a step further and add the idea of a bud as well (something they’re looking forward to). When it comes to gratitude, it’s all about paying – and playing – it forward.
There are few things more heartwarming than gathering with family and counting our blessings during the holidays. That said, it’s never too early to start little ones on a path of genuine gratitude – because when it’s deeply ingrained, it stays with them well beyond Thanksgiving Day.