Building a More Thankful Family

By Katie Gruver, Co-Founder & Parent Educator at Positive Parenting Seattle

Along with crunchy autumn leaves, pumpkin spice everything and holiday trips to overeat while spending time with family and friends, this time of year gets many of us thinking about gratitude. And while the banal hashtag #blessed might have us rolling our eyes as we scroll Instagram, the research keeps rolling in that creating a habit of mindfully expressing gratitude not only brings about measurably greater happiness, but also consistently better health outcomes.

Those seem like things we can all get behind.

That being said… somewhere, especially in our dealings with children, the spirit of thankfulness and deep appreciation gets muddled. We nag at our kids to “Say thank you!” before they’ve had the chance to open up in a recent gift. We worry that their inability to make it through the grocery store without begging for the toy they “really really NEED!” means they’re unappreciative or greedy. We share a sigh as we realize that now WE are the ones telling our children stories about how bad we had it as kids (“Back in our day, we didn’t have Netflix. We had to actually get up and change the channel by HAND, AND we had to sit through commercials!”) in the hopes that they’ll express some gratitude for the improved life we’re giving them.

It’s easy to get stuck in the fear and not see the opportunity.

What we know about gratitude (and its benefits) is that it is not a single act, but rather a practice… a routine if you will. And we know that modeling and practicing new skills and routines are at the heart of almost every parent-child (or teacher-child) relationship.  

Trade “Good job” for “Thank you”:

Many schools and homes are stuck in a pattern of congratulating children over small tasks or expected behaviors, when what we really mean is “Thank you.” Save the “good jobs” for when they’ve done something truly exemplary, and swap it out for something much more meaningful: “Thank you”. Giving thanks to your child and appreciating their hard work and effort helps them feel seen and loved. “Good job” merely praises an activity and can fall a little flat (was it really good or merely what you had asked them to do), and leave our kids just seeking more and more verbal gold stars for behavior.

Instead of “Good job climbing into your car seat” try: “Thank you. That was so helpful to have you climb in!”

Instead of “Good job getting dressed this morning” try: “Thank you for getting dressed all by yourself today. I can see that you’re really growing up. ”

Instead of “Good job cleaning up your puzzle” try: “Thanks for cleaning up. That’s such a big help for our family. Now we have space for something new!” 

Modeling Gratitude in Daily Errands:

Thank the check out clerk. Thank the barista. Thank the person at the post office. You should do this anyway, but definitely do it when your child is with you… and you can also encourage your child to also say (or sign) “thank you” as part of your habit of interacting with others who have given you a service.

You can wonder outloud to your child: “Wow, I wonder how many coffees our barista has made today? I sure am thankful they were able to make my coffee and your steamed milk. And did you notice how quick they were? We barely had to wait!” This type of active in-the-moment gratitude for the daily grind of life helps our kids not only pay attention and notice others who are helping them, but establish a family value and routine around the giving of thanks AND the paying attention to the “little things” of life. It’s easy to be on your phone or

Surprise them (and others) with gratitude notes

Even if they’re not reading yet, leaving them a note on their pillow or in their lunch box of love and appreciation is such a gracious touch. Letting them feel what that appreciation feels like in themselves will help them know how to give it back to others.

Make a practice of thank you notes

After birthdays or other celebrations where gifts were given, encourage your little ones to draw a picture or dictate you a note about why they liked it and to say thank you. Thank you letters don’t have to be restricted to gifts though. Many children are naturally generous hearted, and you can encourage this by every time they’re speaking fondly of a cousin, neighbor, teacher or friend… you can invite them to make a picture or send a thank you note of love and appreciation to those they care about. This practice of snail-mailing our gratitude and love is NOT a completely lost art and is certainly one that leaves most children feeling very proud of themselves and even more apt to notice all the little kindnesses done for them.

Incorporate gratitude or “appreciations” into meal times

Many families do “rose and a thorn” or something similar at family meal times where they talk about one nice thing and one not-so-nice thing that happened to them that day. You could add to this routine by taking a page out of a traditional family meeting practice and start doing family appreciations. How it works is this: Every family members says an appreciation (something they’re grateful for or that they love) about EVERY other family member and themselves. This takes some practice, and for very young kids, they may just sign or say “thank you” or “I love you”. But starting a practice of actively appreciating your family members AND yourselves is a wonderful thing to teach.

For example, at a recent family dinner, some of my family’s appreciations sounded like: “Mom, I appreciate about you that you made this dinner, and you helped me find my red headband.” “I appreciate about myself that I am working hard to learn minus-ing.” “I appreciate about you (child) that you invited me to play with you and we had that very fun wrestling match.” Other fun ways to incorporate gratitude could be:

  • Making a paper chain of things you appreciate with one item written on each paper link (daily/weekly etc.)
  • Start a gratitude jar. Family members can add things to it as they wish, or you can take time every day/week to add to it together.
  • At bedtime, as you’re tucking the kids in, talk about what you’re grateful for, or listing 3 things that make you feel thankful
  • Use “Surprise Sticky Notes” – I think of this like guerilla gratitude. Give family members (or classmates) a post it and have them write (or write for them) something they appreciate about someone else. Then they post it somewhere that person will find it later!

So, the next time you’re thinking that your child isn’t really “getting” what it means to be thankful or that you’re worried that they’re spoiled with all the bounty that comes from living in the modern world…take a moment to check in to see if there might be some more opportunities not only for you to genuinely appreciate them but to also build some family routines around gratitude that make EVERYONE feel more seen, heard and loved.

For more reading, check out this article by Sarina Natkin: “Gifts and Gratitude – Helping Kids Appreciate the Holiday Season