Teaching Kids an “Attitude of Gratitude” this Holiday Season

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Christmas morning in my household is like a shark feeding frenzy, with the sharks (my four children) devouring a pile of bloody chum (the presents). After weeks of shopping and hours of wrapping and labeling gifts, I watch my little ones rip off the festive ribbons and tear through the boxes in a matter of minutes. It’s disheartening, to say the least.

How do we, as parents, cut down on the materialism and overriding consumerism of the holidays and teach our little ones the true meaning and spirit of the season? Moreover, how do we instill in them an “attitude of gratitude”?

A recent Wall Street journal article about raising kids with gratitude cited studies showing that children who “count their blessings” reap concrete benefits, including having stronger GPAs, experiencing less depression and envy, and having a more positive outlook on life.

Teaching our kids to say “thank you” is important, but according to happiness coach and author Andrea Reiser, “gratitude goes beyond good manners—it’s a mindset and a lifestyle.” It includes being grateful not just for material things, but also for the experiences we have and the people around us.

Although teaching kids to be grateful is important, it’s easier said than done. Here are some ways that we can help foster a sense of gratitude in our children, during the holiday season and beyond:

  • Manage the gift expectations. Talk to your kids early in the holiday season about their wish lists, and have them rank the gifts they want the most. Then, set a limit. If you celebrate Hanukkah, one gift on each of the 8 nights makes it easy. If you celebrate Christmas, set a limit on the number of gifts for younger kids or a dollar amount for older kids. For extended family, suggest doing a “Secret Santa” exchange where, instead of giving a gift to every aunt, uncle, cousin and grandparent, you draw names and have each person give a single gift to another person.
  • Focus on the “reason for the season.” Gifts are just one part of the holiday experience. As parents, we can teach our kids why we exchange gifts and what the holiday means in our culture or faith tradition. In the Christian tradition, the custom of giving and receiving presents is a reminder of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh given to Jesus by the Wise Men at the time of his birth. The custom of hanging stockings comes from the story of St. Nicholas.
  • Shift the focus from receiving to giving. Make giving to others a part of your family’s holiday preparations. Encourage your kids to create gifts for family and friends – or give non-material gifts like coupons for breakfast in bed, or a weekend of yard work– something that would be meaningful to that person. Adopt a family through your place of worship or participate in the “giving tree” at school or church, and get everyone involved in shopping for the gift that you will give that child or family.
  • Make gratitude a family event. Counting blessings can become part of your mealtime or bedtime ritual. Go around the dinner table and have your kids say one thing—or person or experience– that they are grateful for that day. As kids get older, encourage them to keep a daily gratitude journal. Being intentional about gratitude is a daily reminder about how lucky we are.
  • Write thank you notes. Have your kids send handwritten thank you notes for gifts—the sooner after receiving them, the better. (Sorry, but emails don’t cut it!) Teach them how to write a proper thank you note and let them do the writing themselves if they are old enough. The note doesn’t have to be pages long– just a few sentences saying why they like the gift or what it means to them is sufficient. Remember, thank-you notes don’t have to be reserved for physical loot: your kids can write them in appreciation for a fun outing, a sleepover, or a good friendship.
  • Limit gift giving throughout the year. When you take into account the sheer amount of material possessions that our kids enjoy, through no effort of their own, it’s easy to see why they can start to feel entitled. Buying kids whatever they want, whenever they want, dilutes the gratitude impulse and can lead to them not valuing or respecting their possessions. Rather than buying your son those new Air Jordans that all of his classmates have, have him put them on his holiday wish list. For other times of the year, have your kids save up their allowances or work to save up for the things they want to buy. Practicing gratitude underscores the fact that all those things we want—shoes and toys and creature comforts — don’t just pop out of thin air.
  • Volunteer. Lecturing kids about “you don’t know how good you have it” only makes their eyes roll. We can teach our kids compassion and empathy skills by getting out there and helping people who are less fortunate in our community. Visit a toy store and have your child choose a toy to donate for a child of the same age. Prepare a meal together or bake cookies and deliver them together to an elderly neighbor. Go through your child’s closet—with him there– and choose coats and other items to donate to a homeless shelter or children in need.
  • Model gratitude. Take time to show gratitude yourself. Thank your kids and your spouse for their helpful and thoughtful acts. Show random acts of gratitude to the cashier at the supermarket, the person who makes your coffee at Starbucks, and the drycleaner. Bake cookies together to share with an elderly neighbor. Hold a family meeting to choose a charity they would like to support. Modeling gratitude yourself will make your kids more likely to adopt an attitude of gratitude.

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