Children who learn to reach out and help others are more aware of what they do have. Often, this knowledge alone makes them more grateful. There are many ways parents can model thanksgiving and encourage it in their children as they grow to become adults.
The following is from a radio show I did on Word of Mom Radio. It’s about teaching gratitude. It’s long, but I think there are some really helpful and even fun ideas included about this important topic. Enjoy! Kas
Children are not born grateful. Each of us has a natural tendency to be self-centered, to look out for our own needs and focus on ourselves. A baby is the center of his or her universe. If a little one is hungry or wet, the whole world is hungry or wet and uncomfortable. Gratitude develops through our experiences as we grow to know ourselves, to see the needs of others, and to recognize our abilities and use them to make a difference. Eventually, our kids can discover how it feels to help someone. When that happens, they feel good about themselves, and an attitude of gratitude begins to develop. It can be one that lasts a lifetime and positively affects lives of countless people, even if in very small ways.
The age-old method for teaching gratitude by asking a child, “What do you say?” when they are given a gift doesn’t develop appreciation at all. In my opinion, as a mom and someone who has spent a lifetime working with children, that response makes a child feel embarrassed at the least, and perhaps even guilty for doing something wrong. Feeling badly about oneself does not encourage gratitude.
For young children, I think the best way to teach being thankful is by example. Notice the things a child does right and well. Tell them, “Thank You.” Use words that let them know their actions are worthwhile. “I really do appreciate it when you take time to put your toys away. It gives me more time to spend reading a story to you at bedtime.” “I’m so glad you brought your dishes to the kitchen and helped me clear the table. Thank you for doing that.” “I noticed you shared your special toy with your friend today. It made me smile.” Be specific. That makes it real to a child. They know exactly what they did that was good. They also know how it feels to be appreciated, and that’s what gratitude is all about. We help people see themselves as valued when we tell them “Thanks.”
When we say “Thank you” to a child, they are being recognized for something good they have done. That has a much different effect than being criticized or told they were doing something wrong. Positive input feels great and they are often motivated to do more things well to get more of that emotional support. It also helps to create a habit of saying “Thank you” to others and looking for the positive things instead of seeing only problems.
We can also model a general sense of appreciation for our kids. By teaching them to look for the good and beauty in life, we are showing them how to be grateful for little things on a regular basis. Look up! Enjoy the clouds in the sky, sunsets and sunrises, animals, birds, flowers, and all of nature. We are surrounded by natural beauty, even if our immediate surroundings are not lovely. Find what is good and make a point of enjoying those things. Much beauty is absolutely free.
Be grateful for pleasant times. Seek them together. It can become a game. “What did you find today that was special?” “What did you do today that was fun?” “Did you enjoy time playing with your friend today? Tell me about it.” In the movie, Mary Poppins, one line in the song, A Spoonful of Sugar, says, “You find the fun and ‘Snap!’ The job’s a game!” Look for fun and the good in all situations. If our focus is looking for problems, that is what we teach our kids, and problems will be found. When we seek, we find. When kids see that we are able to find “fun” and good things, they will look for those.
In general conversations, talk to children about people, situations, and things for which you are grateful. “I’m so happy we have pizza for dinner tonight. Thank you for helping me make the salad (or set the table, or pour drinks, etc.)” “I saw how neatly you put your toys away when I didn’t even ask you to do it. Thank you so much.” Look for good and recognize it. Help kids think about the needs and happiness of others. “Grandma is coming to visit next week. What do you think we might do together that she would enjoy?” Gratitude is not just about us, it includes thinking about the needs of others too.
You can make prayers of gratitude part of everyday life, adapted to your family’s beliefs. Pray together before meals or at bedtime with children. Read the book, The Giving Tree to younger children and refer to it occasionally. It has a precious lesson to teach.
Thanksgiving doesn’t just happen in November. When a child gets home from school or when you pick them up after classes, ask questions that include appreciation and thanks. “What was your favorite thing that happened today?” “Did you do anything in school to help a friend today? How did that make you feel?”
When children do things well, find little ways to recognize their actions. Leave notes on the bathroom mirror, in their lunch bags or book bags, on their pillows, or in any silly place where they might find them. “Thanks for _____. I liked seeing that you did it!” “It’s great to be grateful!” “I’m thankful for YOU!” Recognize their special talents, abilities, sharing, and caring with words, notes, or cards for them to discover in unexpected places. It’s not only fun; it delivers a strong message too. We can help deflect negativity by recognizing what is good, and showing our youngsters how to find it too. Let kids know we are grateful for them and value who they are and what they do.
When you are out in the community, be an example for children. Let them see you thanking cashiers, servers and order takers in restaurants, teachers, pastors, rabbis, health care workers, and others. Children will learn more from your actions than from nagging words.
When we reach out to others, we are teaching gratitude by example. This can also give children the opportunity to experience the joy of giving. Sometimes, parents try to protect kids from seeing poverty, hurt, and injustice; but that doesn’t make it go away. When we volunteer to feed the hungry, donate food or toys, spend time cooking or baking to take food to an elderly or sick friend or neighbor, offer to help someone with yard work, make gifts for children, or help in other ways, children begin to understand that others need our help. It’s no longer “all about me.” Once this concept is grasped, kids can become more aware of how much they DO have and experience gratitude. Talk about it. Let them choose a toy to give to another child who doesn’t have much. If there isn’t another sibling inline for hand-me-down toys or clothes, make it a family project to clean and repair these together. Donate the items or, if you have friends in need who are comfortable with receiving these, you might give them directly to the mom or dad. (Be careful to avoid situations which might be embarrassing to the recipients in any way.)
If you have an opportunity, adopt a family for Thanksgiving, Christmas or a “un-holiday.” Make arrangements in advance and find out if there are foods they dislike, favorite meals, or any allergies etc. to be considered. Find out ages and interests of children. Set a time when you will deliver food and gifts. Then get together as a family and shop for gifts, ingredients, and maybe materials to make a few handcrafted decorations or special greeting cards. Deliver it all as one family to another. You might even sing holiday carols with them before you leave to let them enjoy their feast.
If your postal employees pick up food donations in an annual food drive, let children fill a bag and put it by the mailbox. When there is a food drive, let a child help choose what to give. If a child receives an allowance, encourage them to donate a portion of it to kids in need. Set it aside and watch the amount grow. Then let your son or daughter decide where to give it. It might be to purchase a Christmas gift for another child, or to give a cause that is special to him or her.
Help children see what they HAVE, rather than what they don’t have—and be glad for those people, places and things in their lives. Share stories of family members so they grasp that they are part of something bigger than just their small family. Get together with people in various groups to work on projects that benefit others too. (Examples include: church groups, Scouting and similar organizations, classroom or school projects, etc.) Reach out together. It teaches by example, makes memories that are treasures, and kids learn the lessons of compassion and sharing too.
Children learn best when they think they are having fun, so make giving to others enjoyable. Participate in events that bring people together to reach out to those in need. Invite a family or friend to dinner and involve your child or children in preparing the meal. Play games, get everyone involved in the activities, even some of the work like setting the table or tossing a salad, so there is a feeling of family. Cooperation brings people together and creates memorable happy times that include sharing.
Tough times can happen to anyone and can take an emotional toll on self-esteem and confidence. Sometimes children will become preoccupied with comparing themselves with others and wishing they had more of the things their friends have. Let this spark conversations that focus on what they DO have and CAN do and by taking a good look at what some others do not have available to them. If possible, you might even take them with you to serve food at a shelter. Then ask them what they really need.
If there is something a kid wants, instead of going shopping, devise a plan for the child can earn money to get it. It’s been our experience that buying things for themselves with their own money, is empowering. They tend to value whatever they get and take care of it too. You do not need to be the “Bank of Mom or Dad.” Use the concept of setting goals and plans to accomplish them. Students can be quick learners and it’s very much to their benefit. The world will not provide for their needs, so learning how to take action to get what they want or need is a definite plus.
In our family, our children put in many volunteer hours and we spent many of those hours working together as a family too. It’s important that kids know they are expected to DO things and not just “rake it all in” because they are especially “cool” in some way. Cooperation is key to success in life, and compassion for others is right up at the top of that list too. Set a benchmark that says, our family replaces “gimme” with the joy of giving to others. This action teaches that it really is “in giving that we receive” as St. Francis figured out many years ago.
Share time, talent, and treasure in many different ways. Make it something your family does together and as individuals too.
Even young children can share their time. Their drawings can be included in letters or cards to relatives or friends. Kids’ art will often brighten the day for people who are feeling down. Sometimes a simple phone call to someone will make a difference, and if a child gets to say “hello” and talk, that can be a plus for both of them. Primary students can make cards to send to people who need a smile. School-age children can read or tell stories to little kids and spend time drawing or doing crafts with them. Time spent picking up litter can improve things in a park or other public area or perhaps for neighbors who are elderly and can no longer do it themselves. We’ve taken many walks and carried plastic bags to clean up the neighborhood along the way and dispose of trash properly when we were done. Sometimes people just need someone to listen to the stories they have to tell. A simple question like, “Grandma, what did you play with when you were a kid?” can make them feel needed and actively involved in life, with a bit of excitement to share stories about themselves with someone who wants to hear what they have to say.
Children can also do good deeds for the environment, by filling bird feeders and containers of water for critters or by recycling materials such as paper, plastics, cans, etc. Older kids can run errands or do some simple cleaning for homebound neighbors, help with childcare, or write letters to those serving in the armed forces, to seniors in nursing homes, or others who would enjoy them. Teens can do yard work, childcare, and creative works to make a difference.
Sharing talent might include getting a group together to sing holiday carols in a neighborhood in December, or to create favors for hospital trays. (Tray favors can be cute and fun but usually cannot include food.) We’ve had kids make quilts and donate them to a children’s hospital, where they are used and appreciated. There are many possibilities and countless people who just need to know that someone cares.
Even kids can share treasure. It doesn’t need to be much, but when a child puts some of his or her own coins in a collection basket at church or in a Salvation Army kettle they are learning about sharing, giving, and gratitude. Children can put on puppet shows for parents and other children for fun or charge a token amount and donate admissions to a good cause. It’s a learning process, but once learned, it is likely to become a lifetime habit, and a good one too. The feeling they get is often better than being paid.
Taking part in various volunteer fundraisers is an easy way to introduce children to cooperating to raise funds for group activities or to be donated to those in need. Some obvious examples are: carwashes, cookie and candy sales, bake sales, and similar events. These are also times to come together with friends and learn to work as a team and share in the results. All are good lessons.
Teens can volunteer to babysit ocassionally while a neighbor goes to the grocery store, or runs errands without a little one in tow. Kids can teach other kids how to do things. It might be a particular way to hold a bat in a baseball game, a difficult gymnastic move, or how to make your own chocolate-vanilla swirled fudge with cherries. Generally, children who spend time making a difference to others grow up and take responsibility for themselves while continuing to be involved in their communities. They are the ones who will be leaders as adults and continue to make the world around them a better place.
These kids develop compassion, understanding, listening skills, creative abilities and gratitude without having a sense of entitlement and expecting others to do everything for them. These characteristics are a foundation for them growing up to become independent and competent leaders in their communities as adults.
One interesting thing is that in giving to others, a child will experience various reactions. Sometimes they will be thanked and other times they might be ignored or even receive a rebuff from someone. In a sense, reactions like these are lessons learned. Kids discover that some people are grateful and others are not. They find that gratitude feels good. Expressing thanks and appreciation can be encouraged when they know what it feels like when their own efforts are ignored.
As parents, we can make sure our children receive appreciation and learn how to express it to others. It does make a positive difference.