"Dorothy, what are you most thankful for?" my husband asked our 4-year-old daughter.
"Jesus, you and Mommy, and my sisters," she replied.
Next it was our 7-year-old's turn. It was no surprise that the two kittens we'd adopted that summer topped her gratitude list.
At Thanksgiving, it's our family tradition to share what we're thankful for before we share a meal. Some years our four girls list off two or three items; other years it's more. But each year, they're eager to tell us about those things for which they're most thankful.
Thanksgiving is an ideal opportunity for us as parents to help teach, reinforce and remind kids that it's important to be grateful daily and to express that thankfulness to others.
Here are some age-appropriate ideas for using the holiday to cultivate an attitude of gratitude in your children.
Ages 0-3 — Contentment
During the first three years of a child's life, important emotional and behavioral patterns are formed, says Daniel P. Huerta, executive director of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family. "This stage offers a great opportunity to teach contentment," he says, "which is an essential ingredient for gratitude in later years."
With our girls, my husband and I started by modeling how and when to be grateful. We did this in simple ways. In our mealtime prayers, we were specific and intentional with our words, including sentences such as, "Thank You God for this food that You've given us." As our kids started to speak, we allowed them to pray before meals, too.
I also realized that frustrating situations, such as long lines at stores or stopped traffic on the freeway, were opportunities to show my young children how to "be content whatever the circumstances" ( Philippians 4:11, NIV). Instead of reacting with impatience, I did my best to have a happy attitude while waiting in line, or if stuck in traffic, to pray for those who might have been in an accident up ahead.
Ages 4-7 — Serving Others
Gratitude can be difficult for kids who are 4 to 7 to feel and practice. "They have learned that things, food and attention can trigger immediate feelings," Huerta says. This is when parents can teach children the importance of serving others. Huerta continues, "Kids love the response of gratitude from adults and other kids when they have served. Help them recognize how it feels when other people are grateful."
One way to do this on Thanksgiving is to find tasks your children view as fun and help them use those for the benefit of others. All of our daughters love to draw. Over the years, we've asked them to create place cards for the table. We've also invited them into the kitchen to help prepare their favorite dishes. This includes mashing potatoes, assembling a green bean casserole and tossing the salad — all jobs that, for them, combine service and fun. Not only does this teach children that serving others feels good, it also helps them better appreciate when they are served.
Ages 8-12 — Awareness
Eight- to 12-year-olds are the easiest age group to teach about gratitude because they are able to think more rationally and logically, according to Huerta. "At this stage," he says, "you are teaching the child awareness as an essential component to gratitude." To help your kids be more grateful, you can show them how much need there is in their community, country and the world, Huerta says. This helps them better understand and appreciate the value of what they have.
Tweens can start moving in this direction by making a list of people they know who may be suffering, sick or sad. Then they can set aside time to pray for them or love them in practical ways. For example, if a neighbor is battling cancer, brainstorm what your family can do to meet a need she may have and plan how you'll do it.
Ages 13-18 — Action
It can be difficult for teens to practice gratitude, Huerta explains. "They are dealing with a lot of stress, pressure and distractions. Their personal world naturally gravitates toward self-protection and self-growth." During children's teen years, it's important for parents to intentionally reinforce concepts that their teens learned at earlier ages and to encourage them to be aware of how others may be feeling.
On Thanksgiving, you can help your teens turn awareness into action. This may include serving together at a local soup kitchen. In our area, a local outreach ministry organizes a "gobble jog" to raise money for individuals and families in need. Find something similar near you and commit to walk or run it with your teens. Then, encourage your children to continue to be service-minded after Thanksgiving. This can include volunteering to mow a neighbor's lawn, helping to raise money for a friend's adoption or baby-sitting free of charge for a single mom.
Regardless of your kids' ages, one of the most important things you can do as a parent is to consistently model gratitude and service for them not only on Thanksgiving, but every day of the year. With your attitude and actions, show your kids the benefits and joy of having a thankful heart, and provide guided opportunities for them to express gratitude. Then invite your children to join you.