Beyond food, family, friends and football, Thanksgiving is about being grateful. It’s literally right in the name. But gratitude can go far beyond annual holidays. In fact, most of us would love to raise kids who are appreciative, kind, empathetic, and heart-focused in their daily lives. Whether they’re volunteering for those who are less fortunate, accepting help or compliments with gratitude, or simply showing appreciation for others, having children and teens who don’t take things (or people!) for granted is truly a parenting win. But how can we raise grateful kids to not only show, but also truly feel gratitude?
Here are some tips to help you have more opportunities to foster gratefulness in your kids:
Talk about feelings.
For young children, it may be difficult to fully comprehend that giving can feel as good as receiving, whether it’s gifts, favors, or simple gestures, like visiting an elderly neighbor who lives alone. Start by encouraging them to acknowledge and talk about their own feelings when someone does something nice for them. To develop empathy, ask them how it might feel to someone to spend several days and nights alone without visitors—such as with an elderly shut-in—as well as what they think that person might feel if you brought them cookies or simply played a board game with them.
Encourage acts of thanks and generosity.
Teaching gratitude is sometimes easier when there’s a discussion about privilege. Depending on your child’s age, you can talk about things you’re grateful for that help your family feel safe and secure. For example: “We have somewhere warm to live, we have food to eat when we are hungry, and we have a family who loves and supports us. Some people don’t have those things, or they may have some of them but not all of them.” If you have a friend, family member, teacher, neighbor or other person that you’d like to support, ask for your child’s (or teen’s) input on what they may be able to do to make that person feel loved, appreciated, or supported.
Get the ball rolling with some basic suggestions, such as, “Would you draw a picture for Grandma to hang on her refrigerator so that she’ll smile and think of you when she sees it?” Or, “It’s very hot outside today. What do you think we could leave out for the garbage collector to show him that we appreciate him and want him to stay cool while he’s working?”
Let them choose volunteer opportunities.
Although sharing an interest in your favorite charity or cause would be a tidy way to engage your child or teen in volunteer work, you’re much more likely to see a genuine commitment if your kid is organically moved to take action. If they love animals, for example, they may want to hold a bake sale or sell lemonade to raise money for the local no-kill shelter. If they see an unhoused person shivering in the cold, they may decide to knit hats or scarves to hand out directly. Or maybe they want to donate some toys to a local family shelter. Or perhaps they’ve got anxiety related to climate change and want to start a blog about all the reasons we should be grateful and protective of clean drinking water, coral reefs, or sustainable green energy. Let their interest—not yours—guide them toward volunteer work or good deeds.
Praise acts of kindness and gratitude.
As children and teens mature, they’ll learn appropriate ways to demonstrate kindness and gratitude. If you see them open a door for someone, return a stray shopping cart to the corral, or thank someone for their kindness, be sure to mention it. You can also ensure they overhear you praising their acts of kindness or gratitude while telling a friend or family member. This will help reinforce your family’s values while boosting a child’s confidence that they’ve making good decisions and contributing to the world in ways that are compassionate, constructive, and helpful.
Kids and teens are more likely to do as they’re shown, not told, when it comes to gratitude and kindness. Lead by example by sharing some gratitude highlights from your day over dinner, while you’re tucking them in, or on the ride home from school or sports practice. If your child or teen does something at home—whether it was an assigned chore or just an above-and-beyond act of support or generosity, be sure to thank them. “I appreciate you doing your chores without being reminded!” or “Wow! I was so pleasantly surprised to come home and find the dishes done! Thank you!” can go a long way to reinforce positive feelings regarding giving and receiving kind gestures.
Creating habits and rituals through your day where you reflect on what you’re grateful for is the easiest way to make gratitude part of everyday life—not just a holiday.
Focusing on gratitude can also help tame our desire for more “stuff.” When we’re content with what we have and focus on the comfort and joy that comes with having our basic needs met, the longing to acquire “things” is often tamed.
Best of all, gratitude can serve as a reminder that in the present moment, we are safe, healthy, fed, etc., allowing us to fully appreciate the security of the “now.” Raising grateful kids will go a long way in helping them recognize and appreciate contentment and happiness as adults, which is as valuable a tool as any parent can hope to pass on to their kids.