Teaching kids to be thankful doesn't involve guilt trips or lectures on the less fortunate, and the benefits will last longer than the turkey sandwiches. Grateful children may grow into happier adults, according to Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness and director of the Greater Good Parents program at the University of California at Berkeley. "Pioneering social scientists think that 40 percent of our happiness comes from intentional, chosen activities throughout the day. Thankfulness is not a fixed trait. It's a skill that can be cultivated, like kicking a soccer ball or speaking French," Dr. Carter says. Because Thanksgiving is high season for gratitude, it's an ideal time to talk to your children about remembering the blessings. Try these easy and interesting tips to teach your children to develop a habit of thankfulness.
Shop, Buy, and Share
Trips to the grocery store, drugstore, or toy store can be opportunities to think of others. Next time you're stocking up, encourage your children to pick one or two canned goods to donate to a Thanksgiving food drive or a food bank. Shelters also need donations of personal care items (soap, toothpaste, diapers) or new clothing (warm socks, jackets). Check with local shelters to see what they need, and have kids choose the supplies. They'll learn to think of others and start to appreciate the necessities they ordinarily take for granted. National toy drives, like Toys for Tots, provide new gifts for children. Ask your kids to imagine what children their age might want, and then help them buy it. The item could be something on their wish list or even something they already have and love, like a cherished teddy bear.
De-clutter and Donate
Encourage your children to donate toys they no longer use or clothes they've outgrown. Let them know that some things they don't need might be useful for another child. Suggest that they consider a short list of items to donate, and then bring them to a drop-off place such as the Salvation Army. Involve them in considering what they don't want anymore so they will have new appreciation for their toys and clothes. Just remember not to force it: If they're not ready to give something away, that's okay. Avoid warning the kids that they won't get something new to replace what they give away; they may associate sacrifice with loss or punishment. Instead, find other ways to cultivate a sense of gratitude and helping others.
Volunteer Your Time
Look for opportunities to volunteer as a family. Friends and neighbors may know of a group that can use the help. Serve food at nearby shelters or put together care packages for senior citizens or soldiers oversees. Show how giving time, not just money or objects, is another way of helping others and acknowledging gratitude for what you already have. Or devote time to neighbors or other family members by scheduling a group project to rake leaves for an elderly relative or cook a meal for someone who's under the weather.
Even young kids draw turkeys or learn about the Pilgrims in classrooms. Ask your child (or the teacher) about the lesson plans and build on those at home. Have little ones imagine what the Pilgrims might have been grateful for that first Thanksgiving in Plymouth. They may have been grateful to be with each other or to be living in a new country. The more advanced the lesson, the more possibilities. Kids can also imagine what the Pilgrims might appreciate in your house today. They might enjoy good food and the time with family, as well as modern conveniences like heat and hot water.
Write Notes of Appreciation
Ask your kids to write a handwritten note to someone they're thankful for; if kids are too young to write, have them a draw picture instead. Ask them to consider who makes their lives better or brighter. Is it the babysitter? A favorite aunt? A family friend who always remembers birthdays? When children reflect on who they want to write to, they learn to value people in their lives who have touched them. No doubt the recipient will appreciate a note from the heart, too. Plus, you can spread the blessings by composing more than one note!
Don't Forget Family
Many parents teach their children to say thank you when they receive a gift, but family members often forget to thank each other for everyday favors. "I think we lack ways to talk about gratitude," Dr. Carter says. "My kids have picked up notions of what romantic love is from Disney movies, but they probably couldn't say a word about how Cinderella feels thankful for all that her fairy godmother has given her. We don't talk much about good things that come from other people's efforts." Set an example by thanking your children and your spouse. Saying "Thank you for cleaning your room" or "Thank you for sharing with your brother," not only lets children know that their efforts (like folding laundry or running errands) are appreciated, it also instills the idea that "thank you" is not reserved for the birthday bonanza. Children see gratitude in action, and it's good for household harmony too.
Appreciate Small Moments
Take time to appreciate the good things with your kids. Use travel time in the car as an opportunity to share something positive, perhaps by saying, "Look at the pretty leaves on that tree" or "Wasn't it fun to make that drawing in class today?" These simple conversation starters encourage children to contemplate and appreciate the blessings around them. When you tuck them into bed, ask what they're grateful for that particular day. Gradually weave these observations and questions into your time together to cultivate thankfulness.
Keep Gratitude Going
Long after the turkey is eaten and football season ends, continue to practice thankfulness throughout the year. In the summer, donate your time when charities and food banks need extra help because regular volunteers are on vacation. One of the most practical ways to inspire gratitude is also the simplest. You don't have to be involved in big projects all the time. Set aside time to name one or two things every person in the family is grateful for each day. "Researchers have found that people who practice gratitude feel considerably happier (25 percent) than those in a control group," Dr. Carter says. "They are more joyful, enthusiastic, interested, and determined. Grateful people are more likely to be both kind and helpful." Raising children with those traits would be enough to make any parent thankful.
Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.
Ansley Roan is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She writes about faith and spirituality, health, and parenting. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Glamour, and Teen People.