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Teaching Kids to Give Thanks

4 dos and 4 don'ts for instilling gratitude in your kids

Before sitting down to turkey and dressing, does your family take turns sharing something you’re thankful for? The tradition aims to make gratitude a public gesture and to encourage everyone in the family, even young ones, to look at life from a fresh perspective. Mom and author Mary O’Donohue disagrees with this tradition – not because she doesn’t believe in expressing gratitude, but because (among other reasons) she doesn’t believe in letting your Thanksgiving feast get cold. Instead, Mary offers some gratitude dos and don’ts that she’s practiced with her family to teach thankfulness on Thanksgiving and all year round.

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Don’t:Have each guest at the table say what they’re thankful for while the food sits in front of them getting cold! Take a moment to pray together as a family, or have one person say a few words of gratitude, and then invite everyone to start enjoying the delicious feast while it’s still hot.

Do:Purchase a small poster board (14"x22") so your kids can create a “Thanksgiving Gratitude Board” and display it where everyone can see. Put out colorful markers and ask each guest to write down what they’re grateful for. (Make sure they sign and date their comments.) Bring it out every year. Or buy an inexpensive journal and make it your family’s Gratitude Book. Have guests add to it every Thanksgiving for a beautiful record of your family’s gratitude.

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Don’t:Prompt your children to say thank you whether they mean it or not – even at Thanksgiving. Especially at Thanksgiving!

Do:Help your kids make the connection between being grateful and saying thank you by focusing on the importance of making a “match” between what they’re feeling and how to express it. Let them know that each part is important – both the feeling and the words, and one without the other simply isn’t as powerful.

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Don’t: Talk about politics, religion, or Aunt Bertha’s gallbladder surgery at the dinner table this year.

Do:Start a new tradition. Create a “Gratitude Circle” where everyone at the table says something positive about the person sitting to their left. For example, “I’m thankful for Aunt Katie because of her cheerful personality. She always has a way of lifting me up when I’m down.” This way of expressing gratitude can be especially powerful for children, who might not always notice the intangible gifts they receive from their family – gifts like compassion, humor, companionship, and love.

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Don’t:Let Thanksgiving be the only day of the year your family focuses on gratitude.

Do:Practice gratitude every day with your family. Put up a dry erase board in a hallway in your home and encourage everyone to write down what they’re grateful for every night before bed. Or display a decorative box in your kitchen and label it a “Thanks for No-thing Box.” Fill it with small pieces of paper and a few pens, so everyone in the family can write mini thank you notes for those intangible things you give each other on a daily basis. Once a week at dinner open the box and read the notes out loud. This will help ensure that the blessings of Thanksgiving will stay with your family throughout the year.

Mary O'Donohue, a working mother, wrote the bookWhen You Say Thank You, Mean Itas a solution for parents to the ongoing problem of lack of manners and gratitude in their children. She and her husband Jim have been married for fifteen years and have two children, Connor and Grace.