10 Ways to Teach Your Kids Gratitude This Thanksgiving

Happy kid eating at thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday for many of us—and with good reason. It’s a time to gather with loved ones, eat a hearty meal together, and give thanks for all the good in our lives, large and small. Not only is the holiday enjoyable (and delicious!) in so many ways, but it's also a great opportunity to teach our children what the holiday symbolizes: gratitude.

We all want to raise children who are kind, responsible, successful, and loving. Teaching our kids to practice gratitude is one of the best ways to foster those qualities.

Gratitude allows our children to step outside their own self-interest for a second. It helps them understand that the goodness in their lives is something that isn’t always a given, but a hard-won privilege they have been afforded. Most of all, gratitude teaches them to identify the people and circumstances that make all the good they experience in life possible.

Gratitude teaches humility and expands our children’s worldview. Not only that, but studies have shown that practicing gratitude can have positive effects on mental health. Let’s take a look at the benefits of teaching gratitude to our children, and how to infuse it into our lives over the Thanksgiving holiday.

How Practicing Gratitude Can Help with the Challenges of COVID-19

Practicing gratitude is always in fashion, but this year our children are in need of it more than ever. This pandemic has been stressful for everyone, but especially children. Virtually all of our children spent last spring in lockdown, separated from their schools, extended families, and friends.

Even as children have gradually re-entered life, things have not been normal. Many children are still out of school, and many are still separated from family and friends. Social distancing and mask wearing has become the norm. While many children have adjusted, many have experienced a significant impact on their mental health.

Many families have endured job loss and lowered income. Some families have slid into economic ruin or poverty. Other families have lost precious loved ones to the pandemic, or are experiencing long term health consequences as a result of contracting COVID-19. A lot of families are experiencing increased anxiety about contracting COVID-19, or spreading it to loved ones.

For all of these reasons, Thanksgiving is not going to look the same this year. Due to COVID-19 safety concerns, many families are only celebrating Thanksgiving with their immediate family. Other families cannot afford as lavish a Thanksgiving meal as they usually prepare. Some families are missing loved ones who have passed away. Families are stressed and strained. Our kids can pick up on this stress, too.

It may feel less possible this year to practice gratitude, but really, this is exactly the year to emphasize gratitude! Practicing gratitude with your kids is actually a wonderful way to work through the stress they are experiencing as they celebrate the holidays under the “new normal”—because the truth is, as much as things have changed, the basics of family connection (even digitally) and savoring a simple dish of food together, have stayed the same. Highlighting this truth can be comforting at a time like this.

What Are the Benefits of Practicing Gratitude?

Practicing gratitude isn’t just a nice thing to do in theory: it has real, tangible benefits on both our physical and mental health. Practicing gratitude may be as simple as making a conscious effort to count your blessings, writing down what you are grateful for in a journal, sharing your gratitude with others, practicing good deeds in your community, or discussing what you are grateful for with a therapist or counselor.

Practicing gratitude may look different for everyone, and it's not something that should be forced. There’s no one right way to do it, but the benefits can be plentiful.

For example, research has found that people who regularly practice gratitude:

  • Experience less depression
  • Have lower rates of anxiety
  • Are less prone to feelings of anger and resentment
  • Have lower overall rates of negative emotions or negative thought patterns
  • Have better decision-making skills
  • Are better equipped to deal with adversity
  • Build stronger and more lasting relationships
  • Experience greater life satisfaction

Health benefits of practicing gratitude include:

  • Improved sleep
  • Fewer symptoms of physical pain
  • An increased likelihood of taking up exercise
  • Decreased levels of body inflammation
  • Decreased blood pressure

10 Ways to Teach Kids Gratitude This Thanksgiving

There are so many ways that you can practice gratitude with your children, on Thanksgiving and beyond. Even the littlest kids can join in on some of these activities, and they should, because teaching and practicing gratitude starts young. Let’s look at 10 simple ways for you to teach gratitude to your children over the Thanksgiving holiday, and every day.

1. Keep a Gratitude Journal

Research has found that keeping a gratitude journal is a meaningful way to teach and instill gratitude in us all. The basic act of writing one thing you are grateful for each day is a powerful way to reflect and commemorate the things in your life that you are thankful for. Studies have shown that you don’t even have to share what you wrote: simply writing your gratitude down is beneficial.

Children who can’t write yet can draw pictures of what they are grateful for; they can also dictate their gratitude lists for you to write down. Older children can record their thoughts themselves. Your family can make November a gratitude month, and journal all month leading up to Thanksgiving. Making it a daily practice all year is even better.

2. Donate to a Local Soup Kitchen, Homeless Shelter, or Women’s Shelter

Practicing gratitude isn’t just about recognizing the good in your own life, but extending it to others who are less fortunate than you. Having your children prepare food to donate to a soup kitchen, or items to drop off at a homeless shelter or women’s shelterand discussing why these places are in need of these things—is a wonderful lesson for your children. It will help them appreciate the many riches they have in life and instill in them a desire to make sure that no one goes without essentials like food, clothes, and shelter.

3. Go Through Your Closets and Donate

Thanksgiving is a great time to take stock of what you have, clean out your closets, and donate to others. Have your child help you go through their clothes, toys, and even items in the pantry. Have them choose items that they no longer need or want, and have them accompany you to a church, charity, or another community establishment that is accepting donations for people in need this winter.

4. Do a Family Gratitude Sharing Circle

Many families spend time during or after Thanksgiving dinner saying what they are grateful for. You can simply have each family member go around the table and say one thing they are grateful for. Or you can turn this into a bit of a game, where each family member writes what they are grateful for on a slip of paper, each slip of paper is tossed into a bowl, and then the “gratitude slips” are read out loud. Guests can even guess who wrote what.

5. Participate in a Neighborhood Clean-Up

Keeping a community clean is a group effort, and participating in a community clean-up is a great way to give back to your community, bond with others, and also take some time to appreciate the neighborhood you live in. Neighborhood clean-ups may be held at beaches, parks, or along the sidewalk. They are a great way to meet new people, and do your part to reduce pollution and garbage build-up in your area.

6. Create Care Packages For Essential Workers in Your Community

Now, more than ever, we are all acutely aware of the many wonderful essential workers who live in our community and serve us all. From doctors, nurses, and firefighters—there are so many people that your family can reach out to and share gratitude with.

Send a plate of brownies to your community hospital. Order a pizza to send to your local firehouse. Send your local nurses association a gift basket. It’s a perfect time to show essential workers how much you care, and how well you understand how vital they are to the health and safety of us all. (Whichever way you choose to celebrate them, be sure to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines.)

7. Donate Money to a Cause You Believe In

There are so many charity organizations that are doing amazing work right now. From organizations that support families who are struggling financially, to charities that help support victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many places our kids might feel compelled to donate to. Sit down with your child and ask them what causes are near to their heart, help them find a charity to donate to, and help them make the transaction. What a great learning opportunity, as well as a way to teach gratitude.

8. Make a Family Gratitude Tree or Gratitude Jar

Journaling might not be the most exciting way for your family to record their thoughts of gratitude. So why not make it more tangible and creative? Have your family make a gratitude tree out of construction paper (or whatever material you wish!). Then, write down what you are grateful for on Post-Its and stick them to the tree. You can also use a gratitude jar, which you are free to decorate. Fill the jar with gratitude notes during the week leading up to Thanksgiving, and then read them out loud during Thanksgiving dinner.

9. Write a Thank You Note to a Teacher, Relative, or Community Helper

Besides essential workers, there are so many people in your child’s life who they might wish to thank. There is nothing more heartwarming than writing a thank you note. Have your child write one to their teacher, a clergyperson, their favorite librarian, or good old grandma. Thank you notes from children don’t have to be fancy or lengthy. When your child sees how much their recipient gushes over the note, they will understand the power of a modest thank you.

10. Spend Some Time Showering Gratitude On Your Children

Last, but certainly not least, spend some time telling your children how grateful you are for them.

Too often, we think teaching our children gratitude means that they have to share their own gratitude with the world. This is certainly important, but one of the best ways to teach your child gratitude is to model it for them!

When was the last time you thanked your child for being a good listener, for learning from their mistakes, or for showing kindness toward others? Yes, our children certainly aren’t perfect, but spending a few moments focusing on the areas where your child shines, or where they are learning and growing, can do your child a world of good. Feeling loved and appreciated will fill their cup, and allow them to share those sentiments with others in their lives.

A Word from Verywell

Sharing and teaching gratitude isn’t the answer to all of our challenges. Although practicing gratitude has many proven benefits, your child may still be experiencing mental health struggles as a result of the stress of the pandemic, or because of the general stresses of life.

If your child seems to be having more outbursts than usual, is having trouble sleeping, is experiencing increased signs of stress such as headaches, or stomach aches, talk to your pediatrician. You can also contact a child psychologist; your child’s school psychologist is another wonderful resource.

Remember, too, that practicing gratitude isn’t something that should be confined to Thanksgiving or the holiday season. Raising a well-rounded child means teaching them to see the larger world around them, to understand that not everyone has as many advantages as they do, and to remain humble. It means giving back whenever possible, donating time and money to help those in need, and appreciating the people in their community who keep things running smoothly and safely.

What’s more, regularly practicing gratitude is wonderful for your kids’ health and well-being. You can start your family’s journey toward infusing more gratitude into your lives this Thanksgiving, and then make it a practice all year long.

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