The Surprising Benefits Children Gain from Giving Thanks
Photo Credit: Mladen Zivkovic/Shutterstock
By Meghan Fitzgerald, Founder, Tinkergarten
Just the other day I was walking with my daughter, who upon picking up a very colorful fall leaf exclaimed, “Wow, Mom, look at this leaf! Thank you, Mother Nature!” I was tickled to see her so pleased by the beauty of the leaf, but I was all the more thrilled that she gave thanks without being prompted.
Giving thanks plays a big role this time of year, but it’s a practice that our children — actually, all of us — can benefit from year-round. Not only does practicing gratitude make us more thankful, but it has other positive effects, as well —effects that can help us weather the types of difficult moments that have abounded this year. (Those positive effects are also one of the reasons we've made family-friendly gratitude practices a focus of our fall Wellness classes.)
With thanks at the center of the upcoming holiday, now is a great time to incorporate a gratitude practice with your family.
But What Is a Gratitude Practice?
A gratitude practice is pretty simple in concept really. It’s the routine act of feeling and expressing thanks for the world around us, which includes everything from the natural world you live in to the family, friends, and neighbors that make up the community that surrounds you.
A gratitude practice can take the form of a walk where you and your kids point out the beautiful colors of the leaves this season, like recounted above. Or it could be taking the time to write a thank-you card to someone in your life.
What Are the Benefits of Starting a Gratitude Practice?
There is a substantial amount of research that outlines the benefits of incorporating a gratitude practice into your child’s life, as well as your own. Science shows that people who make noticing, feeling, and showing gratitude a part of their daily routine experience a host of positive effects. Gratitude can not only help you sleep better — which is crucial for kids and parents — but it can also help you feel more positive emotions and be a more compassionate and kind person. It may even help boost your immune system.
It makes total sense that gratitude has so many benefits when you consider that it takes great supporting habits in order to practice expressing thanks. For example, being grateful has the added bonus of helping you slow down and observe the world more closely. If you’re taking a moment to find something to be thankful for today, you are actually taking intentional time to pause from your overly busy life, be in the present moment, and just notice.
Noticing creates the positive effect of activating all your senses. How brightly colored is this mushroom? How does the clear and crisp air feel on your face? What does the crunch of the dried leaves under your feet sound like? Engaging multiple senses not only helps bring you into the present, but it also plays a big role in brain development.
While noticing is one key element of practicing gratitude, communication is the other. Expressing what you’re thankful for encourages the use of rich language. We often use marvelous descriptors in this sharing, exposing kids to rich vocabulary words and giving them a forum to use those kinds of words themselves.
And using that expressive, positive language to describe the world — emphasizing the good — greatly influences how we experience our lives. If you want to find reasons to despair, the world will not disappoint you. But when you are oriented toward gratitude, you benefit from your own self-fulfilling prophecy, constantly reinforcing that the world is good. Darn good.
Who wants to wait to start building that in for our kids (and even ourselves)?!
Now, the important question: How do you actually start a gratitude practice with your kids?
Modeling Gratitude Is an Easy Way to Teach It to Kids
The best way to teach your child to practice gratitude is to do it yourself. Look for chances to mention how thankful you are for things like the natural world, your community, friends, helpers, or the gift of time together. Take chances to express thanks to other people for the help they give to you or your community.
- Thank-you cards are a great way to do that, and they shouldn’t be reserved for just family or friends.
- To show thanks, you can also perform small acts of kindness toward the people to whom you are grateful. For example, think about someone you'd like to thank. What would make them smile? Flowers from the garden? A hand-drawn picture? A phone call with a happy song? Then, create and deliver that bit of happiness to them.
- You can replicate Tinkergarten's “Thank you, parks” activity we created in honor of National Public Lands Day. Kids wrote cards to the stewards of the parks to thank them for all they do to care for the parks we get to enjoy. It was a nice way to bring awareness to the good works of others and highlighted the importance of recognizing that work through thanks.
Establish Gratitude Rituals
Another way to cement a gratitude practice into your child’s life is to establish it as a regular ritual. (Remember, family rituals connect us and teach us values.) Whether or not you use Thanksgiving to kick off your practice, you’ll want to make it a regular part of life. At dinner or bedtime, ask each other, “What were you thankful for today?” Or take a pause on every hike and engage all your senses to find things for which you can be thankful.
But most importantly, remember: be patient and keep at it. We have been modeling gratitude for years — it’s allowed us to create sweet little moments — and it works. Recently, it has started to be our kids who have initiated conversation around what makes us each thankful. Without them even knowing we can hear, they drop sweet thank you's to Mother Nature here and there when they spy something marvelous in their world.
Keep in mind that the feeling of gratitude does not necessarily come naturally to all — for some, it might be intrinsic, and for others, it’s learned. But all it takes to make it automatic is practice. Science has found that the more you practice giving thanks, the more naturally you’ll start to feel thankful. The trick is remembering to do it, which calls for a little intention and practice. The good news is you can easily get started today.
If you are looking for ways to put thanks back into Thanksgiving, consider this simple tree of thanks activity. Gather loose branches and place them in a bucket or vase. Cut out paper leaves and welcome all of the members of the family to dictate or write something for which they are grateful on each leaf, then add each leaf to the tree. Do this over the course of days or as part of your Thanksgiving Day celebration. At the end, you’ll all benefit from the positive effects of being thankful, and you’ll have a meaningful centerpiece to crown the Thanksgiving table, too.
Gratitude Works for All of Us
No matter who or what you thank, your whole family can benefit from this practice. Whether God, Allah, Mother Nature, or the Universe, you can thank whichever entity matches your family’s spiritual and world view. What matters is that you notice, experience, and express thanks for that which is around us, between us, and within us.
After 18 years as an educator, curriculum developer, and school leader, Meghan Fitzgerald has her dream gig — as an entrepreneur/educator/mom who helps families everywhere, including hers, learn outside. Prior to Tinkergarten, she worked as an Elementary School Principal, a Math/Science Specialist, and a teacher in public and private schools in New York, Massachusetts, and California. When she is with her kids, Fitzgerald is that unapologetic mom who plays along with them in mud, dances in the pouring rain, and builds a darn good snow igloo with her bare hands.