With Thanksgiving approaching, gratitude is on all of our minds. You may feel grateful for visiting family, for a cozy fire to sit by or for your mom’s famous stuffing hot out of the oven. And, of course, we all feel extra thankful for our little ones this time of year.
While all it takes is a cheesy commercial to make me tear up with gratitude for my family this time of year, it can be harder to teach gratitude to children. Whether you’re teaching teens gratitude or it’s your little ones, starting a mindful practice of gratitude and appreciation can begin with just a few easy steps.
Try these 11 tips for how to raise grateful children
1. Share your appreciation
One of the best ways we can encourage gratitude in our children is to model a grateful disposition ourselves. Try to talk regularly about what you’re grateful for and why.
It can help to use certain aspects of daily life as a prompt. Try asking everyone to share something they’re grateful for while driving to school in the morning or while eating dinner as a family. Linking a gratitude practice to a daily activity will help ensure the habit doesn’t slip away after Thanksgiving.
Even very young children can help the community in one way or another. Helping others takes away the emphasis on material things and reminds us to be grateful for all that we have.
Little ones can make paintings for children’s hospitals, choose holiday gifts for children in need, volunteer in nursing homes, or help bake muffins to bring to a neighbor. Try to make volunteering, even in a very small way, a regular tradition to foster gratitude all year long.
3. Involve them in household work
Part of feeling gratitude is being aware of the effort someone else went through to give us something. Involve your child in family tasks so that they can see this effort.
For example, if you feel like your child is ungrateful for the meals you cook them, involve them in the process. Let them see the time it takes to cook for the family so they understand that the food doesn’t just magically appear on their plate. They still may not like everything they’re served, but they will begin to appreciate the effort.
4. Let them earn something
It can be hard for children to understand why they can’t have everything they want in the toy store. Money is a relatively abstract concept and if they’ve never paid for something, they may not understand why you’re saying “no.”
Next time your child really wants a new toy, help them brainstorm a way to earn the money and buy it themself. This could be through saving up their allowance, doing extra chores at home or for Grandma or having a lemonade stand or a garage sale to sell their old toys. They will see the time and effort it takes to get that new toy, and they will appreciate it more than if you’d simply bought it for them.
5. Set expectations
If a child frequently gets a treat or a new toy when you’re running errands, they will come to expect it. Once they expect it, they will no longer feel grateful for it, they will only feel resentful when you do say no.
Before you go into a store, tell your child the plan. You might say, “We’re not buying any new toys today, we’re just looking. If you see something you really like, I’ll write it down so I remember it next time you have a birthday.” Stick to the plan you set and, with time, the expectation for constant new toys will diminish.
6. Play ‘Pollyanna’
It’s easy to be grateful when everything is going well, but having gratitude during tough times can be, well, tough. Help children practice gratitude even when things are not going their way—help them find the silver lining.
This doesn’t mean they should mask their feelings—it’s okay to feel hurt and upset and disappointed. But it’s not useful to wallow in these feelings for too long.
For example, if your daughter comes home from school upset that her best friend wouldn’t play with her, acknowledge that something hurtful happened, and then help her find something to be grateful about. You might say, “That must have hurt your feelings. I’m so grateful you have other friends like Billy and Sally that you love to play with too.”
7. Give experiences
Having too much stuff can hinder children’s development of gratitude. If they have hundreds of toys, they may barely notice receiving 15 new ones over the holidays.
Try replacing some material gifts with experiences like a zoo membership or a special one on one date with mom to the park. Experiences help build connection and take the emphasis off of wanting things.
8. Make a gratitude list
Along with their list for Santa, ask your child to make a list of all of the things from the last year that they’re grateful for. You can help them get started, and help write down their answers if they’re too young to write.
9. Be aware of ads
Being exposed to constant advertisements breeds feelings of desire for new things, rather than gratitude for what we already have. Be conscious of the marketing campaigns your child may be exposed to through screen time or catalogs laying around the house.
10. Create a gratitude jar
Start a gratitude jar, where everyone in the family writes down things they’re grateful for and puts them in the jar.
Periodically announce to your child that you’re going to add something to the jar. You could say something like, “I’m so grateful that Grandma brought us flowers from her garden. I feel happy every time I see them. I’m going to add that to the jar.” Your child will start to look for things to add too.
You can make reading the slips of paper together a weekly ritual, perhaps after dinner on Sunday.
11. Say “thank you” like you mean it
Teaching children to say “thank you” is often unrelated to gratitude. It is more of a social custom we are trying to instill. Saying thanks can be heartfelt and meaningful though.
Try adding to your “thank you” to show your sincerity and help a child see what it means to really be thankful. You might say to your spouse, “Thank you for cooking dinner tonight. I was so tired and it made me feel so good when you took care of us like that.” Or, say to your child, “Thank you for helping your little sister button her coat. My hands were full with the groceries and I appreciate you being a helper.”
The more gratitude you show, the more your child will adopt the attitude themself. Try to be patient though. Young children are so focused on themselves that it can take time for them learn gratitude.
Just know that you’re giving them a gift when you make it part of your family life, during the holiday season and throughout the whole year.
A version of this post was published October 31, 2018. It has been updated.