Giving—And Teaching—Thanks: Seven Ways To Make Gratitude A Meaningful Part Of Your Children’s Lives

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By Princess Ivana Pignatelli Aragona Cortes

Gratitude—or a lack thereof—is something all parents encounter during the process of raising children. At some point or other, what mother hasn’t looked on with horror as her child blurted out a variant of “I don’t like this! It’s not what I wanted for my birthday!” or worried that her kids took the many blessings and privileges in their lives for granted? While it’s fairly easy to drill polite responses into youngsters, instilling a true sense of gratitude in them can be considerably more difficult.

Here’s the good news: Your children aren’t destined to become entitled, self-centered members of the so-called “Me Generation.” There are concrete things you can do to make gratitude a meaningful part of your children’s lives—and the Thanksgiving season is the perfect time to start.

Gratitude will increase your kids’ personal happiness and perspective, and it will also help them to develop positive, authentic relationships with others. And yes, being truly thankful is one of the best ways to combat selfishness and “the gimmes.” But did you know that a consistent practice of gratitude also encourages better health, sleep, emotional well-being, and improves academic performance? Perhaps most important of all, it helps us appreciate the good things in the world, large and small. It prompts us to stop and remember that we are all interconnected.

While parents can (and should) encourage their kids to live with gratitude all year round, the Thanksgiving holiday is a perfect time to start modeling and teaching an attitude of true thankfulness.

Here, I share seven tactics to help you transform gratitude from an abstract concept to a reality that your children live in and appreciate:

Share your gratitude out loud. Especially for young children, the concept of feeling gratitude (as opposed to simply saying “thank you” when prompted) can be a difficult one to grasp. Youngsters will better connect to thankfulness when you explain what you’re grateful for and why. Look for teachable moments and narrate them as often as possible.

Openly expressing your gratitude and encouraging your children to do the same will grow into a daily habit of focusing on the good things in all of your lives. In turn, seeing the world through a thankful lens will create more positive attitudes and outcomes.

Explain that you can be thankful for people as well as things. Once again, especially if your children are young, they may not instinctively realize that gratitude can be felt for people as well as things. Make sure you model this concept throughout daily life.

You want to get your kids into the habit of valuing other people for who they are and what they do. And don’t forget to express gratitude for your kids themselves! This type of praise helps them develop positive self-esteem for the right reasons.

Make gratitude a daily habit. All habits are formed through repetition. That’s why I recommend that you designate a time each day to name a few things you’re thankful for. Ask your kids to participate, too. Dinner and bedtime are both good opportunities for the family to talk about their day and to name things they were thankful for.

This addition to your family’s routine might spark some interesting conversations. You may be surprised by what your kids are thinking about and appreciative of! Be sure to make room for silliness and fun. Don’t prompt your child to “get serious” if he says he’s thankful for his Spiderman action figure or for the fact that his infant sister’s spit-up landed on the floor instead of on him. Remember, both gratitude and laughter are best expressed out loud!

Say “thank you” as often as possible. Sharing the things you’re grateful for within your family is commendable. But it’s even better to tell others when you’re thankful for something they’ve done. Let your kids see you saying “thank you” to the cashier who rang you up and bagged your groceries, to the sales associate who helped you find the light bulb you were looking for at the hardware store, and to your spouse when he reaches a box of pasta on the top shelf.

Help the thank-you note make a comeback. According to some cynics, the thank-you note is a dying art—but that doesn’t have to be the case in your family. Buy a pack or two of generic thank-you notes or blank cards (they don’t have to be fancy!) and encourage your children to use them when they receive a gift or when they want to express appreciation for something another person has done.

Don’t give in to the “I wannas.” You’ve heard them before: “I want this! I want that!” And you’ve probably also noticed that the more often you give in to the “I wannas,” the more frequently you encounter them.

Yes, it’s fine to buy your kids the latest fashions, top-of-the-line electronics, and the toys they want more than anything in the world…as long as you do it sometimes and not all of the time. Sometimes the best word you can say is “no.” Don’t feel guilty! Remember that you’re teaching your children to truly value and respect the things they do have and to appreciate every blessing in their lives. Whenever possible, tie rewards to effort so your child understands the meaning and pride of a job well done. If things come too easily, he won’t feel or understand true gratitude.

Encourage teamwork and community involvement. Pitch in! Thanksgiving, as well as the subsequent holiday season, offers many opportunities to volunteer on community projects for those in need. Try to find a way your whole family can give back: volunteering at a nursing home, collecting items for food drives, or helping to prepare dinners for the homeless.

When children use their time, energy, and talents to help make the world a better place, they feel more connected to all that is around them. When they see others who are in need of help and receive gratitude from others, they will learn in a profound way about the beautiful daisy chain of give and take.

Yes, encourage your children to enjoy Thanksgiving, as well as the fun, food, and festivities that go with it. But also take time to consider the true meaning of “thanks” and to think about how gratitude might look “in action” for your family. Raising grateful children is truly one of the best ways to create a brighter tomorrow, not only for them but for the world at large.


Ivana is the author of A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby’s First Year, which was cowritten with her mother, Magdalene Smith, and her sister, Marisa Smith. Their blog, Princess Ivana—The Modern Princess, is a blend of humor, practical advice, and lifestyle tips on the essentials. Ivana is also a featured blogger on Modern Mom.

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