By Mary Beth Gibson

It’s November now (halfway through to be exact), and in November you’re one of two people: you’re either love Thanksgiving or you hate it and cheat on it with Christmas. I’m kidding. Can you tell which camp I fall in? Truly, both are wonderful holidays, and I completely understand wanting beautiful lights, decorations, and music to accompany your home during Thanksgiving. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting a little extra joy this time of year.

Along with joy, ‘tis the season to give thanks and express our gratitude for the blessings and the people we’ve loved through the year. While children naturally experience joy, and often experience it on a level adults wish they could get back, thankfulness is a less intuitive expression in a child. It’s something that requires instruction and guidance from their parents, older siblings, and coaches/teachers. Here are some simple ways to teach and model a thankful heart for your children.

  1. Be Mindful of Your Words

If there’s anything a parent of young children knows, it’s that they are sponges; they soak up every word, phrase, and nuance of inflection that comes out of our mouths. Sometimes it’s useful and sometimes it’s hilarious, but other times it’s like looking into a mirror we’re a little ashamed of. When your child hears a parent saying things like, “I deserve ____” or “We can do better than ______” or “I didn’t want ______,” they begin to absorb the idea that what they have and their current situation could always be better. This emphasizes all of their natural, self-centered tendencies. When children hear their parents express gratitude for a situation or thankfulness for the things they currently posses or what their child has done, it will gradually work its way into their heads. Create a home environment where making demands of anyone for anything is totally foreign and where saying “thank you” is more than just good manners.

  1. Stop Complaining

This goes along with the first step, and it’s so important that it gets its own, special mention. Complaining is incredibly contagious. Have you ever noticed that when your co-workers, friends, or family begin complaining around you? As soon as someone gets going it’s all too easy to chime in with your own complaints about A, B, and C. This is no different for the young children in your home. When the adults and older children in the home complain freely it becomes second nature to a child to express his/her displeasure with whatever is happening. Removing complaints from your home will be difficult, but the example it will set for your children is invaluable.

  1. Read Books about Thankfulness and Generosity

This might be the easiest way for some people to teach thankfulness to children, especially for those like teachers, babysitters, and grandparents who don’t see the children all day, every day. Stop by your local library this time of year and you’re sure to see some Thanksgiving displays set up in the children’s section. You can also ask your librarian for recommendations. While living by example is incredibly important, the books your child reads also have a large impact. Read a Thanksgiving book every day at the same time. Repetition is key with young children, and the more they can depend on a thankfulness routine the more they will begin to “get it.”

  1. Say a Prayer or Blessing before Bed

Speaking of routines, bedtime is an excellent way to incorporate thanksgiving. Whether you are religious or not, saying a prayer/blessing before bedtime is a wonderful way to teach reflection and mindfulness to your child. It will always look short and kind of silly at first, but consistency begins to yield sweet and surprising results. It can be as simple as, “Dear God, thank you for ________. Amen.” or “Today I was thankful for _____. Tomorrow I will be thankful for ______. Goodnight!” This exercise is also helpful for parents because they often have to model how it’s done. You’ll start reflecting on your own life and the things you’re thankful for each day. This is a wonderful exercise to bring parents and children together and to get a small glimpse into each other’s heart.

  1. Teach Empathy for Others through Giving

Empathy is difficult for children to display consistently. A child will often show empathy in situations that do not directly involve them, but when a situation involves that child’s own wants and desires empathy is hard to find. Make it a point to give to those in need this time of year, whether it be donating a favorite toy or buying new toys for others. Whatever you choose to do, the important part is picking something your children would naturally want for themselves and showing them how good it is to provide that special thing to someone else. And this is definitely not just for children! Yet again, the best way to show your children how it’s done is by doing it yourself. Choose nice items from your own closet or home to give away, or buy your favorite brand as a donation. The first time or two might be a struggle, or your child might not completely understand what’s going on, but, again, consistency is key. When they begin to understand how it works they will join in with excitement.

  1. Celebrate Often and Celebrate Big

Excitement and enthusiasm are quite contagious, especially for young children. When everyone gets excited for bath time it’s that much more fun and enjoyable. The same can go for generosity and thankfulness. When saying thank you is done with joy and true enthusiasm it becomes a favorite phrase for a child. Bedtime prayers become something they look forward to when it’s a cause for celebration rather than an obligation. Beans and rice for the third night this week won’t register a complaint if it’s served with joy and fun. While it might seem fake or silly at first to celebrate every, little thing, it will gradually become second nature. Finding joy in the little things contributes immensely to everyone’s ability to be thankful. 

  1. Bring in Less

One of the most important aspects of Thanksgiving is gratitude for the things you have and the things you’ve been given. When a child constantly receives new things they don’t have an opportunity to appreciate or think about the things they already have. And, by the way, the same goes for us adults. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy birthday presents or holiday presents, and it doesn’t even mean that you can’t surprise your child with a special gift just because. All it means is that if you’re in the habit of buying your child something new every week, they might not have an opportunity to learn thankfulness as well. When we can’t have new things we might want, we all have a choice: complain or be thankful for what we do have. Give your children the chance to exercise what you’ve been teaching them. 

While this isn’t an exhaustive list, these seven steps are some of the best ways to teach your child the importance of being thankful and grateful. And they all have the added benefit of helping us as their parents become more thankful as well. And though Thanksgiving only comes once a year, these are habits and actions that can be part of your family all year, for thankfulness is good for everyone no matter what time of year it is.

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Mary Beth Gibson graduated from Wichita State University in 2007 with a BA in Creative Writing and blogs at Bright Sycamore. She enjoys most things natural, but with a healthy dose of practicality and affordability. You can most likely find her at Target chasing her toddler with a baby strapped to her chest. She lives in Kansas with her husband and her two children, ages 3 and 10 months.