Truly thankful: 5 tips to teach kids real gratitude

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By Amy McCready

As we head into the holiday season, TODAY Parents is focusing on putting more gratitude in our kids' attitude. Here to help is Positive Parenting Solutions founder Amy McCready, who will join us each week in November to offer strategies for raising grateful, unspoiled kids.

Isn’t it ironic that the season of gratitude leads right into our children's chants of: “What am I going to GET this year?”

Is anyone else about to throw down their credit cards and hide in a closet until it’s all over? Of course, we have to admit the newest Super-Bling Unicorn Palace is pretty drool-worthy (if you’re 5) — but deep down we know that this is a time of year to be grateful, not constantly demand more, more, MORE! 

Believe it or not, there's a way to cut through the distractions and foster a spirit of gratitude — during the holidays and all year round. Follow these tips, and your kids might actually start counting their blessings instead of just the items on their wish lists.

Tis the season that we hope we have grateful kids. Petrenko Andriy / Today

1. Make do with less

When kids (and grownups) come to expect star treatment — such as getting chauffeured around town, being constantly entertained and fed their favorites in every lunchbox — they take it for granted. The cure? Pick something to “do without” for a week, or a month. For instance, try eliminating take-out or restaurant meals, shutting off non-essential screens for a week or biking instead of driving to destinations less than two miles away. These inconveniences might not always be comfortable, but they’ll help the whole family appreciate how good they have it.

2. Develop a silver-lining mindset.

Let’s face it: most of our troubles are first-world ones. (“Oh no! My jeggings are in the wash so I’ll have to wear skinny jeans instead!”) Our kids need to know that even when they face difficulties, they still have it pretty good. Next time your child complains, turn her grumble into gratitude by modeling how to find the silver linings in difficult situations. If you have to wait in a long line at the grocery store, say “At least we were able to get everything we needed for the week and won’t have to do this again for a while.” If the game is rained out, say “At least we have a nice warm house to come home to.” Don’t kill the lesson by being preachy, but instead recognize that virtually every setback has some kind of silver lining to be grateful for. Your job is to simply help your kids find it.

3. Schedule service.

We all intend to stock the community food pantry, teach underprivileged kids to read and play board games with our nursing-home neighbors, but regular life quickly takes over. If, however, we want our kids to get a better grasp on just how privileged they really are, we need to make family service a priority. Establish a family goal for one or two service events per month throughout the year — not just at the holidays. Brainstorm with the kids about how and where you’ll offer your time and talents. Not only will the people we serve benefit, but our kids will put their own blessings in perspective and find joy from things that don’t require batteries.

4. Give thanks  out loud.

If we expect our kids to take on an attitude of gratitude, we need to step it up ourselves. That means generously handing out sincere thanks, to everyone from the grocery bagger to the neighbor who let you know your ivy has crept into her yard. Take your appreciation to the next level by calling out specifics, such as, “I really appreciate how careful you were with the produce you bagged for me!” Make a habit of showing random acts of gratitude to those who serve you, expressing verbal thankfulness for positive events in your life and thanking your family members for their thoughtful acts — or even just for hanging up their towels. When your kids see how gratitude works and how nice it is to hear, they’ll be more likely to follow suit.

5. Be routinely grateful.

Research consistently shows that people who are grateful are happiest. Bring this truth to your dinner table, bedtime routine or another time of day by creating a simple gratitude ritual with your kids. Take time to say out loud three things you’re thankful for. Or, make a gratitude jar and fill it with notes about who and what you appreciate. For older kids, encourage them to take smart phone photos throughout the week of things they’re grateful for and share them at Sunday dinner. We live in a culture of plenty, which makes it all the more important to make gratitude a consistent part of our daily routine.

A little gratitude will go a long way this holiday season toward creating contentedness and jollier family gatherings. Foster this spirit in your kids and they will be happier for it. Maybe one day they’ll even thank you.

Today Parents contributor, Amy McCready is the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. Her next book, The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic: A Step-by-step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World, will be released in August 2015. Follow Amy on Facebook.