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Four Ways to Get Kids to Be Thankful

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Celebrations & Traditions

It’s Thanksgiving season and many families are focusing on what they are grateful for. You might want your children to join in but are having trouble getting kids into the spirit of the thing.

How can you make your children realize their blessings and express a bit of thankfulness for what they have? The short answer: you can’t.

Just like trying to legislate an apology by telling a child to “Say you’re sorry,” asking a child to say what he’s thankful for might not work very well. Especially if the conversation is public, maybe around the dinner table, with each person saying something in turn, you’re likely to get a mumbled answer or an answer that is seems so superficial that you’re sorry you asked.

Your child is not trying to be smart if he answers, “My PlayStation” or even “that we’re not having Brussels sprouts.” He’s answering with the first thing that comes to mind or the first thing that won’t be too embarrassing to say out loud.  Being put on the spot is never comfortable. In that situation, you also would like edit what you named as something you’re thankful for. Kids are just not quite so skilled at finding something acceptable but not uncomfortable to say.

So, don’t put your children on the spot in this way. If you do, be prepared to accept whatever answers you get, no matter how silly. Instead, cultivate gratitude this way.

  1. Model gratitude yourself. Say, “I’m thankful you’re in my life.” Say, “I’m grateful we have such a warm, comfortable home on a cold night like this.” Say, “I’m so lucky to have a good job and a happy family.” Whatever you’re grateful for, express your gratitude out loud. Give your children an example to follow.
  2. Make a family gratitude list. Get a very long strip of paper – the reverse side of several feet of wrapping paper might do – and tape it to a wall or door using painter’s tape. Let everyone add whatever they think of as the holiday season goes on – things that are silly and funny and things that are serious. Keep this going and have fun with it.
  3. Suggest that your child write down what she’s thankful for, as a private reflection. The trick to this is not ever reading it yourself.  If she reads you some of it, that’s fine. But if she offers to let you read it, tell her that you want it to be her own confidential thoughts. You don’t want to be put in the position of ‘approving’ her gratitude. You want her to be sincerely thankful on her own.
  4. Get the family involved in a volunteer project. You never have to draw the contrast between your own situation and the situation of whomever you’re helping. There’s no need to “make the point.” Let children participate and grow through the experience as you work together for the benefit of someone else.

Most of all, remember that being thankful shouldn’t be something that occurs to us only once a year, at the end of November. Make being mindful of the wonderful things in your life part of your everyday thinking.

Children learn best by example but what message will they learn? Let your kids learn not that being thankful is just something the holiday demands. Guide them in being thankful all year long.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Dr. Anderson will be in Atlanta, GA on December 10 and 11, speaking at the National Head Start Association’s Parent Conference. Email her at [email protected] for details or to set up a presentation to your group in the Atlanta area on one of those dates.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.