How to Raise Thankful Kids
Written by Thomas Lickona, Ph.D. & Katie Hintz-Zambrano
Photography by Natalie Martin, photographed by Maria Del Rio
Thanksgiving is right around the corner. But giving thanks can and should be more than just a one-day event. It’s an important opportunity for families to try to make thankfulness more of a habit. How can we cultivate thankfulness in everyday life, reap its rewards, and make it part of our children’s character and our own? We asked that question of Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and author of Raising Good Children and How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain. Below, he offers 10 tips on how to raise thankful kids, drawn from his decades of working with parents and teachers.
1. Teach Your Kids What Gratitude Is and Why It Matters.
Gratitude is feeling and expressing thanks for benefits received. It’s been called “the secret of a happy life.” Studies have found that thankful people are healthier, more alert, sleep better, and have more positive relationships. They also have a stronger sense of purpose and are more motivated to contribute to society. A grateful spirit makes us aware of all that others do for us and inspires us to be helpful in return. Frequent expressions of gratitude do a lot to create a loving atmosphere in the home. Sincerely thanking someone is an act of love.
2. Make Thankfulness Part of Your Family Culture.
Culture shapes character. If we want to raise children who are thankful and kind, we need to create an intentional family culture that prioritizes those qualities. A Family Mission Statement is one way to do that. Identify the core values and virtues you want your family to live by and feel accountable to. Sit down together and ask, “What kind of a family do we want to be?” Get your kids’ input so they feel ownership. Below is the mission statement of a family with four children ages 9, 7, 6, and 4; it hung in the kitchen where they could review it at the start of the week and refer to it when needed:
The Davidson Way
• We commit to being kind, honest, and fair. We don’t lie, cheat, steal, or hurt others.
• We don’t whine, complain, or make excuses.
• When we make a mistake, we learn from it and make up for it.
• We work to keep our minds, bodies, and souls healthy, strong, and pure.
• We live with an attitude of gratitude.
If your Family Mission Statement becomes a continuing point of reference, it will create a shared sense of purpose and identity: “This is how we live; this is who we are.”
3. Cultivate the Virtues That Support Thankfulness.
Gratitude depends on two other virtues: a positive attitude (seeing the good) and fortitude (the ability to overcome adversity). We won’t feel thankful unless we have a mindset to recognize the positive things in our lives that we can be thankful for. When my wife and I find ourselves in a negative frame of mind, one of us will say, “Let’s do positives,” and we take turns remembering the positive things that have happened that day (and there are always positives, even on the worst days). We can teach our kids to do the same. Many kids think life should be easy—free of frustration, disappointment, and heartache—and are unhappy when it’s not. The virtue of fortitude, the inner toughness that enables us to endure pain and suffering, begins with accepting a basic truth: Life is difficult. With our help, our kids can learn to be grateful even for life’s difficulties—and the opportunities they give us to grow in wisdom and strength of character.
4. Teach That Your Attitude is Always a Choice.
Consider as a family these two quotes: “Gratitude is an act of the will. We choose to be thankful, just as we choose to love,” by Anne Husted Burleigh. “We have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. Life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it,” by Charles Swindoll. Do you agree? What does our own experience teach us? Share stories—how have family members managed to stay positive and even thankful despite setbacks and sufferings?
5. Become a Thankful Person by Practicing Thankfulness.
A virtue is a good habit. Habits develop through practice—lots of it. Find opportunities to practice thankfulness in the flow of family life. Consider having gratitude rituals such as starting dinner with a quick round of “gratefuls” (“What’s something you’re grateful for today?”) or, if you do bedtime prayers or another good night ritual, making thanksgiving part of that. Teach kids to say “thank you” even for small things like passing the salt or holding a door. Make it a family practice to sincerely thank anyone who does you a service, such as those who wait on you in stores and restaurants. Teach your children to thank their teachers at the end of a class or school day—and to look for opportunities to thank other school staff like secretaries and custodians who might not get a lot of appreciation.
6. Write Appreciation Notes.
Expressions of appreciation have even more power when we put them in writing. One family had a Thanksgiving tradition of writing a love letter to each of their five children. Each parent’s letters told the kids what they loved and appreciated about them, the ways they had seen them grow during the past year, the talents and character strengths they saw emerging, all the things they cherished. Consider extending this beyond the family by having each family member, once a month, write an Appreciation Note to someone (a family member, a teacher, a coach, a friend) who has done something they’re thankful for. (Mark on the calendar a day when you’ll all sit down and do this.) Brainstorm the kinds of things you could say that would make a person feel appreciated and give an example of the sort of note you might write. Here’s what one 12-year-old girl wrote to her father: “Dad, you are the person who picks me up and dusts me off after I fall. You give me hope when I have none left. You help me with my math even though I get mad easily. Thank you for everything. I love you.”
7. Count Your Blessings.
We’re often told to “count our blessings” if we want to be happy, but how do you actually do that? As a family, make a list of the things you tend to take for granted. If you do this over dinner, think about every person, at every stage, whose work went into the meal you are eating—the farmers and harvesters, the truck drivers, the grocery store staff, the cook. As a follow-up activity, try this from Hal Urban’s Life’s Greatest Lessons: Write across the top of a page, “I am thankful for…” Under that make 3 columns: “People,” “Things,” and “Other.” Then, in the respective columns, list all the people you are thankful for, all the material things you’re thankful for, and anything else you are thankful for (such as freedom, education, friendship, love, peace, intelligence, abilities, health, talents, particular experiences, beauty, and kindness.) For the next 24 hours, read each of your lists four times: (1) when you wake up, (2) after lunch, (3) after dinner, and (4) before going to sleep. Then discuss as a family: What was valuable about doing this? Teachers who have done this with teens say it noticeably improves their attitude.
8. Keep a Gratitude Journal.
Ask each family member to commit to keeping a Gratitude Journal for a week. At bedtime, write down “three or more things from the day you are thankful for.” Do this with your children (you can make the entries for your pre-writers). Each night at dinner, have everybody share something they wrote in their Gratitude Journal from the previous day. Then, at the end of the week, discuss as a family: “What, was good about doing this? How could we continue the spirit of this, even if we don’t keep a Gratitude Journal every day?” In classrooms where children have kept gratitude journals, parents and teachers have observed an increase in their expressions of appreciation and even an improvement in some students’ grades.
9. Cut the Complaining.
The habit of complaining is the number 1 enemy of a spirit of thankfulness. Complaining almost never makes us feel better, usually makes us feel worse, and often sours the mood in the whole family. We want kids to share the responsibility of helping to create a happy family, and complaining certainly doesn’t do that. How to curb it? As a family, take the No Complaints Challenge: Try to go 24 hours without complaining about anything. When the 24 hours are up, discuss as a family: How did we each do? What made this hard? What did we learn from it? Also consider cutting back your children’s screen time; too much of that creates cranky, irritable brains that are disposed to complaining. Reducing screen time has been found to improve kids’ mood, manners, and overall positive behavior.
10. Give Back.
If we are truly grateful for all that others have done for us, we’ll want to “pay it forward.” In that spirit, many families have participated in the new tradition of “Giving Tuesday” (the one following Thanksgiving) by contributing money or service to a worthy cause. This is a chance to consider, as a family, the wonderful work done by charitable organizations in your community and around the world to alleviate suffering and improve the lives of others. Decide together what you’d like to support on this coming Giving Tuesday and how each family member will contribute. Then, if you don’t already do this, set up a system whereby kids divide their weekly allowance equally among three jars: “Spend,” “Save,” and “Give.”
Expressions of thanks cost nothing but will do much to strengthen relationships and foster harmony and happiness in our homes. There’s nothing more important that you can teach your children than this: If you want to be happy, think about all that is good and beautiful in your life, be thankful for it, and then show your gratitude in word and deed.
For more topics like this, check out our Mother stories on Teaching Empathy To Children, The Power Of Play-Based Parenting, and Creating a Hygge Home.
This article was originally published on November 1, 2017.
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