How to Teach - and Express - Gratitude to Your Children

“The root of joy is gratefulness...

It is not joy that makes us grateful;

it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”

David Steindl-Rast

Gratitude is such a popular topic this time of year. A quick Google search turned up nearly 87,000 results in .58 seconds flat!

On a quick tour through the results I found definitions galore, benefits even more…quotes about…ways to practice…apps that track…schools that teach…stories…synonyms…even the alleged “downside” of gratitude.

Information abounds. So why another blog post on the topic?

It’s November. It’s Thanksgiving. It’s a super important part of raising kids. So I’m going for it!

A fair number of the links touted the relationship between gratitude and physical health and well-being – and they’re yours for the perusing. Gratitude has colossal cred. If there were a pill that did everything it’s supposed to do, we would chuck our super foods and gym clothes, and take it in a heartbeat.

Health benefits aside, I’ve personally found gratitude to be a virtual Teflon® suit against resentment, grumpiness, self-righteousness and self-pity (most of the time). And a grateful attitude seems to increase resilience, helping us tolerate the many moments that don’t go our way.

Fundamentally, gratitude is about recognizing – and expressing appreciating for – the good in one’s life. It’s about not taking things or people for granted.

Even if gratitude weren’t laden with benefits, I believe it’s our job as parents to teach kids to have a grateful spirit. The good news is, children have an innate capacity for caring, as demonstrated by Ella Scott, who brought out her restaurant meal to a homeless man she saw through the window.

It’s that inborn capacity we need to reinforce by cultivating, fostering and prodding our children (and ourselves!) to practice gratitude every day.

When we’re quick to remind our children to tell Aunt Myra “Thank you for the gift” or the neighbor “Thank you” for a compliment, we may think we’re encouraging feelings of gratitude. What we’re really doing is teaching manners and courtesy.

Manners are incredibly important – don’t get me wrong. Yet to teach our kids the importance and value of a grateful heart, we need to personally value gratitude – and intentionally model it – through our actions. How? Here are a few suggestions:

      Have a family gratitude jar that everyone adds something to once a week

      Model expressions of courtesy at home

      Model gratitude for life’s advantages by helping those less fortunate or aiding a worthy cause

      Make philanthropy a family affair with a monthly volunteer date

      Demonstrate you values via your checkbook

      Share your philanthropic engagement and volunteer efforts with your children on a regular basis

      Contextualize and provide reality-testing when children face a disappointment that feels epically tragic

I’ve found one of the most impactful ways to demonstrate just how grateful I am is to wholeheartedly thank my children. Not just for chores like emptying the dishwasher or taking the dog for a walk. But simply for being the great son or daughter he or she is.

I’ve done just that every year for each one of my three in the form of a gratitude letter. Each year on their birthdays, I put pen to paper (or hand to keyboard) and acknowledge my love, my pride, my observations and my amazement at their growth. I include funny stories. Frustrating times. Friends they loved. Trips we took. And other reflections.

Instead of giving them the letters annually as they were growing up, I amassed them privately until each was 18, presenting the collection as a gift.

It was a huge surprise when I gifted my oldest son with his book at age 18. He was incredibly surprised and excited to receive it, and read the book cover to cover. I recently asked him and Kalie how their books affected them. Here’s what they said:

OLIVER:

I was very surprised to receive my book. I felt extremely special and a lot of love. To see the amount of effort that went into each letter every year was amazing. Getting to relive both the highs and lows of my life was one of the biggest rushes. It was awesome to look back. Seeing how much you love me, and the amazing progress of my life, was incomparable. It was truly the most thoughtful gift I have ever received.

KALIE:

To know that each year you took time to write to me and document how I had changed meant so much. When I actually read the letters it was an unparalleled experience. I laughed at all the funny stories and felt nostalgic as you talked about my relationships with friends and family. I loved seeing how I had changed and how each of those experiences shaped who I am today. I especially loved the last letter, where you wrote a list of things to remember as I went out into the world.

It is a truly special feeling to know that someone in your life cares so much about you. You knew who I was and who I had the potential to become before I could even speak. With the book I felt so much more prepared to start the next chapter of my life, because I knew I had the best support system at home. If there was ever an object to demonstrate what good and loving parenting looks like -- it would be this book.

My youngest son, Quincy, not quite 18, is excited to get his book on his next birthday!

As a parent, nothing has made me happier – or more full of gratitude – than seeing my children beam with the sure knowledge that they are seen, loved and fully appreciated – warts and all.

Don't know what to give your child the next time it's gift-giving season? Consider a gratitude letter. It's something I promise they will treasure forever.