Make Thanksgiving a Habit—Not Just a Holiday

Kindness means thinking of others and acting in ways that contribute to their happiness. Complaining certainly doesn't do that. If you’ve been trying to make kindness part of your family culture and there’s still a lot of complaining, it’s time to take further steps to teach and practice gratitude. Here are six:

1. Teach your kids what gratitude is and why it matters.
Gratitude is the virtue of feeling and expressing thanks for benefits received. It’s been called “the secret of a happy life.” Grateful people are healthier, more alert, sleep better, and have more positive relationships. A grateful spirit makes us aware of all that others do for us and inspires us to be helpful in return. Frequent expressions of gratitude cost nothing but do a lot to make others feel appreciated and create a loving atmosphere in the home.

2. Share stories about being grateful when life is difficult.
When life is difficult, gratitude can be difficult. So it’s important to share stories about people who have chosen to be grateful in the face of adversity. In his book, With Love and Prayers: A Headmaster Speaks to the Next Generation , Father Tony Jarvis, an Episcopal priest and head of Boston’s Roxbury Latin School for boys for 30 years, shares what he said to the boys about gratitude at a morning assembly:

“If there is a secret to happy living, it is living thankfully. Right now, sitting among you, are boys with alcoholic parents, boys from dysfunctional families, boys living in situations where they are physically and/or psychologically abused, boys living with parents who are dying painfully. A boy whose mother was dying a hideous and painful death a few years ago said to me: ‘I’m grateful I can bring her some small comfort by something I do or say each day.’ No bitterness. No sense of entitlement to a trouble-free life.

Try to avoid thinking that you can save your children from getting hurt (emotionally or physically). Instead, prepare them to cope.

“Life entitles you to nothing. If you want to be happy, you will find happiness not from dwelling on all you do not have in life and feeling bitter about it. You will find happiness by dwelling on all that is good and true and beautiful in your life and being thankful for it.”

3. Make thankfulness part of your family culture.
Culture shapes character. If we want to raise children who are thankful, we need to create an intentional family culture that prioritizes that virtue. Gratitude rituals are one way to do that. Such rituals also help thankfulness become a habit, part of who you are. Some you might consider:

  • Start dinner with a round of “gratefuls” (“What are you grateful for today?”).
  • At the end of dinner, thank the cook(s) who prepared it for all the work that went into the meal or for a part you especially enjoyed. Also, thank whoever set the table or will be doing the dishes.
  • Make it a family practice to sincerely thank anyone who does you a service, such as those who wait on you in restaurants or stores.
  • Teach your children to thank their teachers and school staff like secretaries and custodians who might not get a lot of appreciation.

4. Take the “no‑complaints challenge.”
The habit of complaining is the number 1 enemy of a spirit of thankfulness. Pose this challenge to the family: Try to go 24 hours without complaining about anything. Keep track of times when you slip but don’t stop trying. After the 24 hours are up, discuss as a group:

How did we each do?

What did we learn?

Does complaining help us feel better?

What are better ways to deal with stress or disappointment?

5. Gratitude prayers.
If you’re a praying family, encourage your kids to pray a prayer of gratitude as soon as they wake up. For example: “Thank you, Lord, for the gift of this day. Thank you for the gift of my life. Help me to be thankful all day long.” Encourage them to begin their personal prayer time with prayers of thanksgiving. As a family, say grace before each meal. As part of bedtime prayers, help kids remember and give thanks for the blessings big and small that they received in the course of the day so they learn to look at life with the eyes of faith.

Create Your Own Quality Time

6. Give back.
If we are truly grateful for all that others have done for us, we’ll want to “pay it forward.” In that spirit, many families have participated in the tradition of “Giving Tuesday” (the one following Thanksgiving) by contributing money or service to a worthy cause.

As a family, consider the wonderful work done by charitable organizations in your community and around the world to alleviate suffering and improve the lives of others. Decide together what you’d like to support and how everyone will contribute.

Then, in order to make giving a regular practice, set up a system whereby kids divide their weekly allowance equally among three jars: “Spend,” “Save,” and “Give.”

You’ll never regret making gratitude a priority in your family. (For more gratitude ideas, see How to Raise Kind Kids .)