Thankfulness is more than the words you say

Help children learn real gratitude through everyday practices.

Children's artwork.
Make a habit of saying "thank you" throughout the year.

“Say thank you!” Every adult who has lived with or worked with young children has shared this reminder countless times. Teaching children to be thankful can seem like just one more parental chore. Real gratitude is the practice of being thankful. It requires thought, energy, practice and is more than just saying “thank you” for a birthday present. Gratitude is an attitude of noticing and appreciating an effort, as much as it is about saying the words.

Parents and caregivers can teach the children in their life an attitude of gratitude through consistent modeling. Point out small things to your child that make you thankful, such as a beautiful moon, a warm meal or a clean shirt to wear. Let your children hear you express when you are appreciative. You might say, “I’m so thankful for the rain that helps plants to grow,” or “Isn’t it nice when we all work together in the garden?” or “Mom has been working really hard, why don’t we make a special treat to show her we appreciate her?” This easy practice requires no money down, no special tools and not a lot of time out of your busy day. You can teach children how to be grateful every day when you express your own gratitude openly and model thankfulness through your actions.

The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children states that gratitude can:

  • Help make friends
  • Boost overall well-being
  • Improve pro-social behavior
  • Help promote good sleep

Build time into your busy schedule to reinforce an attitude of gratitude. Michigan State University Extension recommends families make a habit of saying “thank you” every day. A few ways to do that include:

  • Setting aside a special time for unwrapping gifts that arrive from distant family members or those who cannot be present for a special occasion. Share a video or picture of your child opening the gift.
  • Allowing time to discuss a specific gift (color, texture, use) and the thoughtfulness of the gift giver.
  • Gathering all family members together to draw pictures or write a note of thanks following a big event. Provide stickers, envelopes, glue sticks and colored crayons or markers for the project. Assist children, depending on their age and developmental stage, in writing, addressing and mailing notes. One sentence of thanks per grade level is a good rule for a child’s note writing.
  • Assisting children in making a phone call or video call to a long-distance grandparent, aunt, uncle or family friend who sent a gift to your family or child. Practice in advance of the call by discussing things the child appreciates about the gift and the gift giver.
  • Staying informed through local newspapers and radio about community endeavors that help those who are less fortunate. Discuss upcoming events in routine family conversation and brainstorm ways your family could assist. Include your children in the discussion.
  • Sharing thanks through homemade or handmade items. A child’s handprint on a piece of cardstock can serve as the cover of a card. The words “thank you” can be spelled out using alphabet cereal or small candies glued to a paper. Everyone appreciates a plate of cookies a child has helped to decorate.
  • Taking time at the end of each day to mention the things for which you are thankful. This can be as simple as mentioning a sweet moment when you snuggled with your preschooler after their bath to discussing how beautiful the moon was on the new snow. Research shows that recording experiences in a “gratitude journal” has lasting effects. Consider what your child’s gratitude journal might look like if you began today to record your child’s positive memories throughout their childhood.
  • Utilizing your local library to explore children’s books that can assist you in teaching thankfulness and gratitude through age-appropriate stories. Preschoolers through third graders will particularly enjoy “Gratitude Soup” by Olivia Rosewood, “Bear Says Thanks” by Karma Wilson and “An Awesome Book of Thanks” by Dallas Clayton.

Author Douglas Wood writes in his children’s book, “The Secret of Saying Thanks,” “Perhaps you'd like to know a secret, one of the happiest ones of all. If you’ve not yet discovered the secret of saying thanks, it’s waiting for you.” Help the children in your life discover Wood’s secret, the life skill of expressing gratitude.

For more articles on child development, and parenting, please visit the MSU Extension website.

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