Where's the thanks? Teach your kids about gratitude this Thanksgiving

With Thanksgiving just around the corner and thousands of families still without power and heat in hurricane Sandy’s wake, it seems like the right time to focus on gratitude at home. Have you ever noticed that kids are not inherently grateful? We have to teach them to say thank you, not to grimace when they get a gift that isn’t exactly what they wanted, and to appreciate the things they do have, all the while trying to curb what can seem like an endless chorus of “I want.”

Many children who lost power in their homes became more aware of how fortunate they are to have creature comforts when those disappeared for a week – they learned that lights, hot baths, TV and phones are actually luxuries!  We've seen a lot of children getting involved in the relief effort too, whether donating clothes or toys at their preschool or going out to help with their parents. But as the hurricane and its aftermath is something we hope not to recreate to teach this lesson, how can we help our toddlers and kids be more thankful each day?

If you are like me, you want your kids to appreciate all the good things in their lives, and to feel a true sense of empathy for kids who don’t have as much as they do. This empathy is what will later drive them to volunteer, donate, identify with those in other countries and cultures, and inspire them to leave the world a better place than they found it.

In my own hectic life as a New York working mother, I have tried to integrate a new simple practice into our family’s routine to encourage thankful thinking. About once every two or three days, we go around the table (or the car, or wherever we might be) and each of us says three things for which we are feeling grateful.

It takes about 5 minutes, but done repeatedly it really does seem to increase gratitude and even joy, and it's something that even preschoolers can participate in. Here are some real life examples of the kinds of things my kids have said since we started this a few weeks ago:

Adrian (four years old)

-       I am grateful that daddy took me out to play soccer this morning

-       I am grateful that Emmett is the best big brother

-       I am grateful that mommy made my favorite macaroni and cheese

Emmett (eight years old)

-       I am grateful that we are going to see a movie today

-       I am grateful that Adrian got better (he had been sick until the day before)

-       I am grateful that we won our soccer game today

They love the opportunity to have everyone listen quietly to what they have to say, and as they can see it’s important to my husband and me, they take it seriously and put a lot of thought into it. My husband and I love hearing them focus on what is good in their lives, since we feel we spend a lot of time hearing about what they want/need/wish they had, especially with all those Toys R Us circulars arriving in the newspaper!

Sometimes my husband or I will try to remind the kids that they enjoy a lot of privileges that other kids might not:

-       I am grateful that when Adrian had 102 fever on Friday, we were able to take him to the doctor right away to find out what was wrong. In some countries, people have to go miles to find a doctor and we have one just 10 blocks away.

In my experience, kids have a hard time grasping how fortunate they are and it may be something they’ll only realize in retrospect. In the meantime though, we can help them heighten their sense of thankfulness and create a little more peace and harmony in our homes at the same time. Happy Thanksgiving everyone. What are you doing to teach your kids about gratitude this season?

P.S. Many thanks to Sarah Napthali whose book “Becoming Mindful Parents: Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children” inspired this practice.