The holidays are approaching and are a time for everyone—including children—to count their blessings.
The excitement of travel, visiting relatives, and—of course—gifts present opportunities for us all to demonstrate our gratitude, but that same excitement can complicate our kids’ expressions of gratitude.
How can families teach what gratitude means, and what are some ways that we can help children practice gratitude year-round?
To help answer these questions, we spoke with Rhea Rowser, MD, a primary care provider with Kettering Health.
“What do you want for the holidays?” is a common question this time of year, and it brings up an important aspect of gratitude: needs versus wants. For most of us, our needs are taken care of. We have clothes and food, a place to live, and healthcare. That means most gifts fall into the category of want, not need.
“Don’t take needs for granted,” advises Dr. Rowser. Holiday charitable donations, Giving Trees, toy drives, and even the bell-ringers outside stores all illustrate to kids that there are those whose needs are not met. Dr. Rowser suggests involving kids in holiday giving. Let them help pick out the gifts when you go shopping. Explain why you’re buying a winter coat, boots, a toy, or extra food. Invite the kids to write notes or holiday cards to the people who will receive these gifts. Ask them to help wrap and deliver the gifts.
Dr. Rowser adds, “Whole families can lead by being role models of gratitude.” Don’t just thank a child for their drawing, school craft project, or other everyday gift. Tell them why you’re glad to receive it, and ask them why they’re giving it to you. Share at home, whether it’s items, activities, snacks, or chores. At the dinner table, ask each other about something or someone they’re grateful for. Kids learn by watching, and you teach much with your words and actions.
Daycare also offers opportunities for kids to learn about thinking of others, sharing, and gratitude. Talk with the staff about age-appropriate lessons kids can learn. Teach them to say “please” and “thank you,” but don’t stop there. Point out gratitude examples at daycare and at home, in the media, or in books and stories they like. Ask them to think about others and think about what those people may be grateful for.
Schools and doctors also play important roles. Talk with your children’s teachers and counselors about gratitude and other aspects of kids’ emotional health. Likewise, primary care providers and other doctors monitor a child’s emotional health and development with your input. “Emotional well-being is an important part of everyone’s wellness care,” says Dr. Rowser.
As children get older, create a gratitude journal with them. Keep track of this journal and revisit it often. Also seek out and take part in charitable or volunteer work in both your local area or your faith community. “Create building blocks by exposing children to kindness and gratitude as they grow,” Dr. Rowser says.
“Hard times can bring out gratitude,” adds Dr. Rowser. The many, long months of the COVID-19 pandemic affects us all. Talking with children about healthcare and other frontline workers, scientists creating new medicines, and all those devoted to caring for the sick or underserved during the pandemic points out that silver linings such as gratitude can be found behind even the darkest clouds.
Mentoring—whether as informal as an older sibling helping a younger one, or more formalized as with school or faith programs—offers older kids and teens the chance to learn about and relate to other, younger kids. Teens can share their experiences, answer questions they may have had themselves, and be role models, just as they’ve learned from you.
Developing and practicing gratitude habits with children will pay off, producing results so much greater than a simple “please” or “thank you.”
To learn about volunteer or giving opportunities at Kettering Health, including our Summer Teen Volunteer Program, visit ketteringhealth.org/give