Five Ways to Teach Children About Gratitude

Help children appreciate life when they don’t seem to be coming by it naturally.

Posted Nov 19, 2015

No matter how many place settings there were to accommodate three generations of Pruetts at our Thanksgiving Feast table, everyone had a seat at the grown-up or kids’ table. Every celebration I can remember began with my father—a pastor by trade—telling everyone to hold hands and, starting with the oldest, share one thing for which they were grateful on this day. It was hard to be patient, sitting there, mouths watering, and wondering what you were going to say when it was your turn. In this simple act, we learned that gratitude was what made this meal different from all others. I was amazed year after year by how seriously everyone took this charge. Answers ran from sacred to profane, but the lesson was clear; families thrive on gratitude.

The Goddard School
Source: The Goddard School

However your family chooses to celebrate Thanksgiving, it is an important opportunity to affirm values that most parents hope (or wish) their kids were developing naturally. The bounty of family life—so obvious on the dining room table—is less obvious to our younger children, and most of them need a little help seeing the connections between what we share as a family and how we feel about belonging to that family. While children seem to have a natural drift toward empathy, even compassion, feeling grateful for what they have is a harder sell. Grown-ups need to place this high on their agenda, along with plenty of patience for this sapling graft to take hold. Before you start, think about why this matters to you and how you got that way. Share those thoughts with your partner, and make a plan about how to sell gratitude as a family value to your children, as it is one of those desired human values that does not always unfold naturally, as our children grow.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Regularly express your own thankfulness verbally. (We are very lucky to have grandma nearby. I’m thankful to have a son like you in my life. Your dad made that so easy for all of us.)
  • Express gratitude behaviorally. (Take a casserole to a neighbor who has been kind or needs some extra help for whatever reason—even better if the children help you make it. When the hand-me-down toys end their cycle, make a Goodwill run with the children in tow.)
  • Make generosity part of your family’s routine. (When seasons change, collect clothes from everyone’s closet to donate or take canned goods to the local soup kitchen.)
  • Take the children along on community fundraising activities, runs, walks, etc. Explain to them why this matters to you. (Make sure they meet the organizers and understand the purpose; if it’s personal, it’s remembered)

Consider this: regularly planned simple activities can make children feel useful and appreciated as givers, not takers, which is the antidote to gratitude). These are the roots of self-esteem, not reward or praise.

Dr. Kyle Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, an early childhood education franchise and leading preschool teaching learning through play (www.goddardschool.com).