At Thanksgiving, it’s our family tradition to share what we’re thankful for before we share a meal. This has helped cultivate gratitude at Thanksgiving. Some years our four girls list 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.
“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.
Thanksgiving is an opportunity for parents to help reinforce and remind kids that it’s important to be grateful daily. It is a time where parents can teach kids how 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.
Contentment & Gratitude
During the first three years of a child’s life, important emotional and behavioral patterns are formed, says Daniel P. Huerta, Vice President 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.”
Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to show gratitude, but this cultivation must go beyond one holiday. Start modeling how and when to be grateful daily. You can do this in simple ways. During mealtime prayers, be specific and intentional with your words. As your kids start to speak, allow them to pray before meals as well.
Realize that in frustrating situations, these are opportunities to show young children how to “be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11, NIV).
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.”
Ways to Give Back
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. If your children love to draw, ask them to create place cards for the table. You can invite them to help prepare their favorite dishes. This teaches children that serving others feels good, it also helps them show gratitude when they are served on Thanksgiving day.
If there is a local ministry where you can serve meals as a family, go with your children and give back to the community.
Eight- to 12-year-olds are the easiest age group to teach about gratitude because they are able to think more logically. According to Huerta he says, “At this stage, 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. 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 during the Thanksgiving season. 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 ways your family can meet a need they may have.
Once your family has brainstormed some ways to help those around them, encourage them to take initiative. Give them the resources they need to complete the task, but give them the space to step up and serve. When you do this, it allowed your child to take responsibility for serving someone else and showing gratitude.
Your Teen Needs YOU Most of All
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. Parents can encourage them to be aware of how others may be feeling.
Gratitude in Motion
On Thanksgiving, you can help your teens turn awareness into action. This may include serving together at a local soup kitchen. Find a “turkey run” near you and commit to walk or run it with your teens. Then, encourage your children to have a mindset of service and gratitude after Thanksgiving. This can include volunteering to mow a neighbor’s lawn, donating belongings they no longer need, or baby-sitting free of charge for a single mom.
Final Thoughts on Thanksgiving Gratitude
Regardless of your kids’ ages, one of the most important things you can do as a parent is consistently model gratitude and service for them. Not just on Thanksgiving, but every day of the year. With your attitude and actions, your kids can see the benefits and joy of having a thankful heart, and provide guided opportunities for them to express gratitude.