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Teaching your children to be thankful this Thanksgiving

November 23, 2015

There may be nothing more disheartening to a parent than an ungrateful child.

We work so hard to give them everything they need, everything we didn’t have, more than others could imagine, yet too often it isn’t good enough, they complain, they want more. It’s a familiar scenario, right?

The hard truth is, though, that no one is born being thankful. Isn’t that a strange thought? We all have been given a lot; even life itself was given to us through the labor of another. But we frequently approach our lives with a posture of entitlement- I deserve more, I need more, I want more. Somewhere along the line, we’ve made an unconscious choice to see our lives from the vantage point of scarcity instead of abundance.

Our kids are no different. They quickly forget what they do have and lust after the things they don’t. And in a consumer-driven, social media saturated world that markets products to them before they even know how to speak, it’s no wonder that they struggle to find gratitude.

It has always surprised me that the children who have the least are the most grateful and full of joy. I’ve lived in a developing country where orphaned children are sick and nearly starving, but if they can find a couple of plastic bags to crumple together to use as a soccer ball, they are grateful.

Even here at home where many of us have every advantage, there are children among us whose bodies are failing them. We wish for bigger houses and shinier toys, but they wish simply to still be alive next year. Somehow, they are the most thankful, contented children I’ve known.

Of course, the answer isn’t to wish hardship or illness on our children or ourselves, but we can learn a lot from those with a thankful heart.

Why cultivating gratitude is important for your children

If you asked a bunch of parents what their greatest wish for their children is, perhaps many would tell you that they just want their kids to be happy.

But how do you provide happiness?

Many are seeking it, but few seem to have found it. Happiness often seems contingent on our assembling the perfect set of circumstances. We say to ourselves, “If this happens, then I’ll be happy.” Except that we often can’t control our circumstances, and that makes happiness seem out of reach most of the time.

Instead of happiness, though, I think a better pursuit is joy. Joy is happiness that isn’t contingent upon our circumstances. Studies that have aimed to identify what makes people joyful have consistently found that joy is always tied to one thing: gratitude.

It’s not when we get everything we want that we magically become joyful. There is always something more to want. It’s when we become grateful for what we have that we find ourselves feeling joyful.

And isn’t that what we ultimately desire for our kids?

How to instill gratitude

Now is the perfect moment to begin talking to your kids about what it means to be grateful. Here are some ideas that can help you cultivate thankful hearts in your home.


  • Have a Thanksgiving show-and-tell
Kids of all ages enjoy a moment in the spotlight to talk about who they are and what they enjoy. Why not involve the entire family in a Thanksgiving-themed show-and-tell where each person can show one thing they are grateful for? You can encourage them to use pictures of people or draw their own pictures to focus less on material things.


  • Put on your “Grateful Goggles”
Showing gratitude is a discipline, and it takes practice. It is a learned behavior where we choose to focus on the things that we have instead of the things that we don’t. When you talk to your kids about seeing things from a thankful perspective, play a game. Have them put on their “Grateful Goggles” to see all of the things they can be grateful for. Then at other times when you sense entitlement or a lack of gratitude, remind them lovingly to put back on their “Grateful Goggles.”


  • Focus on hearts, not only actions
Demonstrating manners and showing respect for others are important, and teaching your children to say “please” and “thank you” are certainly part of that. But don’t simply focus on what they do, help them understand how they feel. Speak to the heart of the issue. Tell them how it hurts your heart when you’ve worked so hard to buy something for them, and they feel like it isn’t good enough. Explain how happy you are when they show appreciation for the gifts you’ve given them.


  • Model gratitude for your children
Author Brene’ Brown offers a profound parenting truth: “You can’t give what you don’t have.” You can’t teach gratitude if you aren’t practicing gratitude. Our kids are more influenced by the people we actually are than the parents we wish to be. Show them what thankfulness looks like in your everyday life and they will be more likely to follow your lead.


  • Share without shaming
Share with your children that you value gratitude without heaping shame upon them if they fail to demonstrate it. If you say, “You are so ungrateful. All you do is complain!” they may simply agree that they are hopelessly ungrateful and feel resigned to the label you’ve given them. Instead say, “It hurts my feelings when it seems like you aren’t grateful for the things that I’ve worked so hard to give you.”


  • Serve and sacrifice
Give your kids the opportunity to see for themselves how much they have to be thankful for by letting them experience life amongst those who haven’t been as fortunate. Whether that means volunteering to feed others at the homeless shelter, donating toys to children who are stuck in the hospital for Christmas or offering up their seat to an elderly lady who could use a break, encourage your children to venture out of the comfortable bubble we have created for them and to experience life where things may not be quite as easy. Show them the value of serving and sacrificing for others.

During this season of thanksgiving, revisit what it means to truly be thankful. Don’t just say the words, but live them. Your kids will be grateful that you did.