5 Ways to Help Kids Live Lives of Gratitude

Thanksgiving gives us a chance to renew our commitment to living full lives of gratitude, and to help our children do the same.
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As we approach Thanksgiving, and images of roasted turkeys and heaping bowls of sweet potatoes fill our minds, we have an opportunity to create and launch a teachable time with our children around the meaning of gratitude.

At the Thanksgiving table, ask everyone to take a quiet moment of reflection to visualize something that gives them a sense of gratitude. Then, have them "turn and talk," sharing for just two or three minutes with someone beside them as a way to get that idea out in a safe and more intimate way. Then, bring everyone back together to share that thought all around the table. This time ask for the moment or idea to be no more than a minute long, and share around in a steady stream with no pauses between people, so the experience of sharing feels both structured and poetic, all at once.

This moment of gratitude sharing that we experience together as families should extend beyond the holiday season. Thanksgiving gives us a chance to renew our commitment to living full lives of gratitude, and to help our children do the same.

Here are five ways to do that:

1. Read aloud books and other texts that convey the value of gratitude.

Reading aloud is so powerful and will impact your child's life forever. Your voice and the text together can actively convey important ideas, feelings and values. Reading aloud is shown to have a unique impact on both a child's sense of him- or herself and a child's academic success in school, so you are "killing two birds with one stone" (a not-so-subtle nod to the poor turkey). A recent study showed that reading aloud to a child every day puts this child a year ahead in school compared to a child who has not been read to every day (and this takes into account imbalances in socioeconomics and the parents' educational levels). Amazing!

Of equal importance, there are many authors who write books and other forms of texts that model the sense of living in the world in a wide-awake, grateful way. Some include: Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, by Charlotte Zolotow; Andy and the Lion: A Tale of Kindness Remembered or the Power of Gratitude, by James Henry Daugherty; Thanks a Million by Nikki Grimes; The Thankful Book by Todd Parr; Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message, by Chief Jake Swamp; and for older children, there are chapter books that have a strong heartbeat of thanks running through them, including Wonder by RJ Palacio; The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo and all poems by Naomi Nye, Valerie Worth and Mary Oliver.

Nonfiction texts are also great for sharing, showing children the wonder of the world and taking a moment between pages to stop and offer gratitude for the extraordinary power of nature. Great nonfiction texts include the National Geographic Readers, anything by Seymour Simon and the DK series.

2. Cultivate gratitude with social action projects.

Select one or more organizations doing work in the world that your child admires, or that focus on problems your child is interested in solving, to follow and support. Then, find a way to really help those organizations. Make a "Thanksgiving Commitment" as a family. Start with inquiry together into the concern your child has, whether it be worrying if everyone has enough to eat, or if every child is learning to read, and then build off that with a project together. The project can be easy and built into the fabric of your lives. You could collect loose change together for the next few months and then donate it to one of the organizations you discover together. You might want to dedicate a Sunday to gathering up a few of your child's favorite books to donate to a local community center, or clean up the trash that litters the local pond. Talk about problems being solvable if everyone joins in to solve them. Let the discussion about gratitude in this context be about how grateful we are for what we have, but also what we can do to change the world together.

3. Keep a family gratitude journal.

Every morning or evening, take two minutes together to write in a print journal or record in an online folder a moment that inspired gratitude for each member of the family. The story might come out of a wonderful moment, or might even be a moment that felt hard but had a silver lining. You will be teaching your child both the art and power of reflection, and also the significance of valuing each family member's daily experiences.

Some prompts for a family gratitude journal could include:

  • What experience did you have today that made you feel grateful?

  • Who in your life today offered you kindness that made you grateful?
  • What did you do today that put gratitude into the world?
  • What was something you saw in the world today that brought you gratitude?
  • 4. Stop and actively cherish daily, seemingly ordinary moments together.

    We all move very quickly. Let us take the lead from our youngest children, who move far more slowly, and live closer to the ground, to do the same ourselves. As you walk together along the street to the bus or to school, give yourselves an extra minute to stop and look at the sun coming up from behind the hill, or the changing leaves on the trees, or the cool garbage truck driver. Or the way the laughter of the baby or the faraway whistle of the train sounds in the cold morning air. Stop and look deeply. Stop and listen. Invite your child's thoughts of gratitude on the way to school. "What are you grateful for today?" is a simple seeming question, but if your response to it is simple and profound, your child will begin to internalize that and live in those ways too.

    5. Show gratitude for your kids themselves, in small and big ways.

    We have a lot to do as parents. It's a big job. And it involves a lot of details: the cooking, shopping, cleaning, managing, rushing, negotiating, problem solving details of what it means to be a parent in the 21st century. But we love our kids. And each one is so different, so unique, so special and so beloved to us. Take a moment to share what you think about that with your child. Be as specific as possible. Think about it and write it down even before you share. "I love you" is a big and powerful statement, but saying also "I love the way you smile in your sleep" or "I love how you lean in when we are reading together" or "I love the way you held your little brother's hand today as we crossed the street" gives them ideas about who they are and who they want to become.

    It reminds them that you are driven by and inspired by the gratitude of their very being here on earth.

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