Originally published in OC Family Magazine.
Looking at the world through a lens of gratitude is not easy -- many adults have not even mastered it. But instilling the practice of being thankful in our children is important because thankfulness is a habit that will benefit them throughout their life; people who focus on gratitude tend to report more contentment and also tend to cope better with life's challenges.
There are several tips for teaching your children the art of being grateful, but the most influential (and perhaps most challenging) method for developing this habit is by example. Cliché as it may sound, children are keen observers of their parents' attitude and outlook. If they hear more grumbling and complaining than appreciation, they are likely to develop this pattern themselves.
Thanksgiving is a great time to introduce traditions around being thankful, but I would encourage you to look at this season as a jumping-off point. Think about incorporating some of these ideas into the rest of the year. Children will not learn about being thankful from a couple of rituals that they take part in once a year. Thankfulness will need to become a part of their daily practice in order to really take root in their way of thinking.
1. Serve others. Try to find ways that your children can take part in helping those around them. Volunteering at a soup kitchen, feeding the homeless or sponsoring a foster child for Christmas are all great ways to teach your child about perspective.
2. Affirm each other. Children (and adults) have a hard time being thankful when they are running on empty emotionally. Make sure that you are building your kids up each day so that a lack of self-esteem does not hinder their ability to be thankful. Consider doing a short round of affirmations for your children at every meal.
3. Take a perspective-building service trip. It can be easy for kids to lose perspective living in Orange County. We live in the land of privilege, and even those of us battered by the recent financial storm are still some of the wealthiest people on earth. Just several hours from our country's borders, people are living in abject poverty. When your kids are old enough, take them on a house-building trip, or get involved in a service project in a place beyond their normal frame of reference.
4. Make your children earn things. Children who are given everything they want will have a harder time being thankful for what they have. Use age-appropriate techniques to allow kids to work for the things they want, whether it be a week of chores for a new game, or a part-time job to help pay for their car. Help your kids see the value in the things they have.
5. Regularly keep a list of things you are thankful for. A daily gratitude journal is a great habit, and something that your family could institute at the end of each day. Stopping to reflect on life's blessings will help keep you and your children more positive and content.
6. Model saying thank you for the little things. Show your children that you don't take the small stuff for granted. Thank your spouse for what he or she does each day. Thank the service people around you. Thank your child's teacher. Give your child the example of a life that is led by appreciating others.
Do you have any special traditions for highlighting an attitude of thankfulness at Thanksgiving? How do you maintain this value throughout the year?