Creating a Grateful Heart in Young Ones

November 18, 2019 | by sara beth wald

My kids have a hard time understanding what Thanksgiving is all about. Eating and watching football? Why is this a holiday?

When my older son was 5, I dreamed up this idea to have a “Kids’ Thanksgiving” at our church. We served only kid-friendly foods like chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and pizza. We played kid games and did a gratitude activity.

This event was a win because it brought the kids to church, and it got them thinking about what they were grateful for (more on that in a minute).

Still, the kids often met in the fellowship hall of the church to eat kid-friendly foods and play games. In most ways it felt like any other youth gathering, which kind of defeated the purpose.

The activity, however, was a resounding success. We had each child trace their hand on construction paper. They could make as many paper hands as they wanted. On each hand, they wrote something they were thankful for.

Once their hands were done, they taped them to a huge paper tree I’d constructed and taped to the wall in the fellowship hall. Soon the tree was aglow in gratitude “leaves” in fall colors.

The coolest thing about this activity was not the tree itself, although it was beautiful. It was not even when each child read their gratitude hands out loud, which was very moving.

The absolute best part was the following Sunday morning, as the older members of the church filed into the fellowship hall and saw the tree. Sharing all that gratitude was truly what Thanksgiving is all about.

In the years since our “Kids’ Thanksgiving,” I’ve tried many other things to help my kids understand the real reason we gather on the fourth Thursday of November (with mixed results).

Here are a few ideas that have worked:

Give, give, give. It’s hard to forget how lucky you are if you are helping someone else. There are lots of ways to do this in any community. Here’s one of our family favorites:

Every November I take my kids to the store and load our cart with things like shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, bar soap, baby lotion, deodorant, and toilet paper. It’s super fun for the kids to fill the cart with reckless abandon.

When we check out, I make sure they pay attention to how much it costs just to stay clean and take care of your basic needs. It’s sobering to realize that these things so many of us take for granted are actually quite expensive.

We take our purchases to a shelter or a food pantry. Not only does it feel really good to help others, it teaches my boys to count their blessings.

However you decide to give, make sure it’s tangible. Making a donation is great, but kids learn by doing. Turn giving into a family event.

Gratitude Advent Calendar: You can buy gratitude advent calendars online or make your own. Every day in November, kids pull out the card or open a window and are told an amazing thing about their life. There’s always something to be thankful for!

Another twist is to list one kind act every day in November and complete the list as a family.

Do a gratitude check. The gratitude tree helped me learn that in order for it to really sink in, kids need to act out or write down what they are thankful for. There are oodles of gratitude activity ideas online.

Do a little homework, then make sure you have all the supplies at the ready on Thanksgiving Day. Insist on the adults participating! No pie or football until they’ve done their gratitude activity!

Honestly, we love the idea of adding a “Jar/Box of Thanks” to your family that is home to your daily reflections of gratitude. Each day your family will add their note of three things they were thankful for – big or small. What a gift to look back on the following year!

Read together! Our family has holiday books that we read during each season. I realized a few years ago that we jumped right from reading about Five Little Pumpkins to The Night Before Christmas. Where were all my Thanksgiving books? A quick search online or a visit to your local bookstore is all it takes to build up your gratitude library.

Count your blessings out loud every day. Of course, November isn’t the only time we should be grateful. A recent story in Harvard Healthbeat newsletter cited multiple studies showing that gratitude actually improves your health and relationships and leads to higher overall happiness. 

Kids who grow up watching their parents openly express their gratitude learn how to appreciate all the ways their own lives are blessed. 

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