Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks, to count our blessings and focus on all the good things in our lives. And though we’re reminded at this holiday to express gratitude, it’s important to remember gratitude is a vital trait to cultivate around the year, both in ourselves and in our kids.
Why Gratitude Matters
Gratitude is an essential component of both our overall happiness and our relationship with money. It reminds us that our lives are more abundant than we think they are. This, in turn, can lead to a reduced focus on materialism, inspiring us to put less importance on acquiring “stuff” than on intangibles like experiences and connections.
Gratitude can also reduce the tendency toward social comparison, or “keeping up with the Joneses.” The feeling that others have more than we do leads directly to the sense that we don’t have “enough.” This can be a real problem for our finances because a consistent feeling of lack can result in poor financial decisions, such as overspending. Believing we don’t have enough can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as we acquire life-crippling debt by consistently living beyond our means.
A feeling of scarcity can also result in fewer positive money moves, such as saving for retirement or creating emergency savings. We may feel we don’t have enough money to set aside for these things, regardless of whether that’s actually true.
Further, research has consistently shown that a focus on materialism and social comparison can lead to a profound sense of dissatisfaction with our lives. According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley (GGSC), materialism makes us believe our happiness is dependent on acquiring things. When we discover that buying one coveted item doesn’t make us happy, we project our happiness onto acquiring the next thing, and the next thing, consistently thinking, “If only I had this new thing, then I’d be happy.”
The GGSC’s research also demonstrates that those who focus on materialism and social comparison experience greater anxiety and depression. This could be because these mindsets equate self-worth with net worth. In a culture that focuses so heavily on materialism, it’s only natural that when we feel we have less, we also feel we are less.
There is, however, an antidote to both materialism and the social comparison trap. The GGSC also discovered that more materialistic people report very low levels of gratitude, and a study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found a significant connection between gratitude and happiness. Additional studies conducted over the past decade consistently show that people who practice gratitude are happier and less depressed than those who don’t.
Gratitude is all about acknowledging the good things in our lives, from time shared with family to the enjoyment of a good book to laughter with friends. Gratitude helps us savor what’s positive in our lives instead of focusing on lack and constantly yearning for more. If you’re genuinely thankful for what you have, you’re far less likely to envy those who have more, a state that could set you up for a lifetime of dissatisfaction.
In the end, because it plays such a huge role in overall happiness, practicing gratitude is an essential component of living the “good life.”
Teaching Kids About Gratitude
Gratitude is just as important for kids as it is for adults. This is in part because lessons — including financial ones — learned in childhood carry over into adulthood. Gratitude not only lessens feelings of scarcity and increases overall happiness, but it can also foster kids’ empathy toward others and curb entitlement behavior.
A cross-cultural study of 7- to 14-year-olds found that gratitude is an expression of empathy and emotional awareness. The more awareness a child has of others’ feelings, the more deeply they express gratitude, particularly what the researchers called “connective gratitude,” or showing thanks in a way that was meaningful to the one receiving the thanks. An earlier study found a similar relationship between emotional awareness and gratitude. Entitlement behavior, on the other hand, is linked with a lack of empathy and emotional awareness, which can be a direct response to feelings of scarcity and envy.
Gratitude is a vital trait to cultivate in kids, but it’s also an abstract concept, which means it can be difficult for kids to grasp. And while we can certainly talk to our kids about being grateful, they learn best by doing. So, the best way to impart the lesson of gratitude is through activities kids can directly participate in.
Below are 25 suggestions for activities to inspire gratitude in your children. Some are meant to be practiced during the Thanksgiving holiday, and others are intended to help carry the lesson of gratitude throughout the year.
Thanksgiving Activities to Inspire Gratitude
Thanksgiving is a great time to involve kids in creating lasting family traditions. From making meaningful crafts to actively participating in family gatherings to contributing to their communities, the holiday is full of opportunities for kids to learn about and practice gratitude.
These activities can be done at any time during the month of November and used to decorate your home for the big day. It’s a win-win; you get to engage in a meaningful activity with your kids, and you create some homemade, low-budget Thanksgiving decor.
1. Thankful Tree
A wonderful craft project that can be used and added to throughout November is the “thankful tree.” Your family can decide to create this tree in any number of ways. You could collect branches, or purchase them from a craft store, and arrange them in a jar or vase to make a “tree.” You could also draw a tree on paper or cut a tree trunk out of brown paper and tape it to the wall.
You can create leaves for your tree in any number of ways too, such as cutting out paper leaves or tracing your kids’ hands on construction paper and cutting those out to make leaves.
Throughout November, set a container of these leaves next to your thankful tree. Whenever a family member thinks of something they’re grateful for, have them write their item on a leaf and affix or hang the leaf on the tree. By Thanksgiving, you’ll have a great family decoration that also expresses the meaning of the holiday.
2. Handprint Wreath
Similar to the thankful tree, this one is also about writing what you’re thankful for on individual “leaves.” The thankful wreath, however, works better as a one-time craft project for an afternoon.
For this one, trace your kids’ hands onto construction paper. The paper can be any color you like, but the handprints will look particularly festive if you choose fall colors like red, brown, and gold. Just as with the thankful tree, write one item of gratitude on each of the handprints.
Young kids especially love handprint crafts, so this activity and the one below are great for ages 3 through 8. If your child is not yet able to write, you can have them tell you what they’re thankful for and write it down for them.
To make the wreath, cut the center out of a paper plate; this will act as your wreath base. Next, glue the handprints around the wreath. Hang up your wreath somewhere inside or on your front door for another meaningful Thanksgiving decoration.
3. Handprint Turkey
On a piece of construction paper, trace your child’s hand. The thumb will become the turkey’s head and neck, and the fingers will be the turkey’s feathers. Give them some crayons and have them write one thing they’re thankful for in each of the four feathers.
To make this craft especially meaningful, you can repeat it every year and collect the handprint turkeys in a scrapbook as a kind of Thanksgiving time capsule.
4. Gratitude Turkey
For this craft, rather than tracing a hand, you’ll cut individual feathers out of construction paper and have your kids write one thing they’re thankful for on each feather. You can then glue the feathers to whatever kind of turkey body you choose, such as:
- A flat paper cutout
- Painted Styrofoam spheres (make the body from a larger sphere and the head from a smaller one and attach them with toothpicks)
- A large brown pom-pom
- A pine cone
You can also have fun with this craft by adding extras like googly eyes, legs and feet, and a turkey waddle from construction paper and other materials.
5. Gratitude Pumpkin
This is a variation on a paper strip pumpkin. First, cut uniform strips from orange construction paper. You can cut them either the long way (making them 11 inches long) for a large pumpkin or the short way (making them 8.5 inches long) for a small pumpkin.
Stack your strips and use a hole-punch to punch a hole at the top, straight through all the strips, then punch another hole through the bottom of all the strips. Have your kids write something they’re thankful for on each strip, then re-stack all the strips with the gratitude statements facing in the same direction.
Take a green pipe cleaner, lay it lengthwise against the back of the strips (the side without writing) and pop the ends of the pipe cleaner through the holes on the top and bottom of the strips. Push the strips down the pipe cleaner until they’re as round as you want them, and then fan the strips around the pipe cleaner to make a spherical shape. The gratitude statements should end up facing the outside. Once you’ve got your pumpkin shape, knot the bottom end of the pipe cleaner to hold the strips in place.
Next, cut leaves from green construction paper, punch a hole in each one, and slide them over the top end of the pipe cleaner. Once they’re attached, twist a knot into the top end of pipe cleaner, leaving a bit of pipe cleaner at the top to curl into a stem.
Although some of the below activities are also craft projects, they’re all meant to be done together as a family, along with your guests, on Thanksgiving Day.
6. Thankful Tablecloth
Purchase a new white tablecloth and some permanent markers. Sharpies work best and won’t come off in the wash. When family and guests are gathered for dinner, have everyone use the markers to write what they’re most grateful for on the tablecloth.
You can put this tablecloth out again year after year, making this activity a family tradition. Family members can look back and reflect on what they wrote in years past. Use a different-colored marker for each year so you’ll know which year each statement is from.
For a variation on this activity, you can do a table runner instead. Or, if you’d rather not have something permanent, you can make a tablecloth or runner from chalkboard fabric, which can be erased and reused.
7. Thankful Garland
Set up a gratitude station with a container filled with paper leaf cutouts, a jar of markers, and clothespins. In your dining room, or wherever you plan on having your Thanksgiving feast, hang up a string or decorative ribbon. As guests arrive, they can use the leaves to write down things they’re grateful for and then attach them to the ribbon with clothespins. When everyone finishes, you’ll have a festive, meaningful decoration to adorn your feast.
8. Turkey Jar
Find a clear glass jar, then use paper shapes cut from construction paper to decorate it to look like a turkey body.
Similar to the thankful garland, set up a station with markers and paper cut to look like feathers. Have guests write what they’re thankful for on the feathers and then place them in the turkey jar. For added fun, read the feathers during the Thanksgiving meal and have everyone try to guess who wrote what.
9. Gratitude Conversation Starters
This one is a spin on the classic practice of going around the table and having everyone share something they’re grateful for. This activity uses targeted questions to deepen the conversation.
Before the feast, write specific questions on strips of paper. These could be plain white strips, different-colored strips, or even feather-shaped strips. Examples of potential questions include:
- What event or experience during this past year are you most thankful for?
- Who has most influenced your life in a good way this past year and why?
- What part of your day are you most thankful for?
Try to steer clear of questions like “What one thing are you most grateful for?” because they encourage a focus on materialism, which runs counter to gratitude. Instead, ask a question like “If you could give one thing to someone you love, what would it be?” This puts the focus on giving and on what might be meaningful to the person receiving the gift.
After composing the questions, put your conversation starters somewhere on the table where you’ll be eating. You can put them all in a jar in the center of the table or tuck them into strategic spots like napkins.
10. Thanksgiving Time Capsule
Find a jar, preferably a glass one, with an airtight lid. Don’t use a container that could potentially decompose over the year, such as a shoebox. Have all your guests write gratitude statements on strips of paper and put them into the jar. Kids can then help dig a hole in the yard and bury the jar. If you don’t have a yard or don’t want to dig a hole, you can put the jar in a cabinet.
Next Thanksgiving, everyone can dig up the jar and see how things have changed over the year.
While crafts and games can be a lot of fun for kids, nothing helps develop gratitude quite like giving. Service-rich activities give children opportunities to practice feeling empathy for others, to see firsthand how others live, to think about others’ circumstances more deeply, and to make them more aware of the good things in their own lives.
11. Turn Gratitudes Into Activities
While recognizing what we’re grateful for can certainly help develop a deeper awareness of all the good in our lives, you can take it to the next level by turning all those gratitudes into service-based activities. For example:
- If your child is grateful for Dad, they can do something nice for him.
- If your child is grateful for their toys, they can donate a toy to Goodwill or help you purchase a toy for a Toys for Tots drive.
- If your child is grateful for pie, they can help you bake a pie to take to a neighbor.
- If your child is grateful for Grandma and Grandpa, they can paint them a picture.
12. Write Thankful Notes
Again, it’s one thing to notice what we’re grateful for and a whole other thing to express that gratitude.
Kids can practice expressing gratitude by making a list of all the people they’re grateful for, from their teacher to the mail carrier, and then write each of them a note expressing why they’re thankful for them.
13. Deliver or Serve Meals to Those in Need
Many people are tragically alone, housebound, or in need this time of year. Kids can help prepare or deliver meals for a service like Meals on Wheels or serve a Thanksgiving meal to the less fortunate at a local church, shelter, or soup kitchen.
Participating in this kind of activity encourages kids to develop empathy and curbs entitlement by showing them how those less fortunate live. It can also teach them about the good feelings that can come from participating in their communities and helping others.
14. Send a Thank-You Letter to a Member of the Military
Many soldiers in active duty may not be able to go home for the holidays. Kids can help send some holiday cheer by writing a letter of thanks to those who serve, making a holiday card, or packing a box of candy, personal items, or other welcomed gifts.
15. Donate Blankets or Coats
Food isn’t the only thing those less fortunate are in need of this time of year. Many who are homeless also lack warm clothes and blankets. You can donate a new or gently used coat through an organization like One Warm Coat or participate in a local coat drive.
If you choose to donate a coat as a service project, be sure to talk with your kids about what you’re doing and to drive home the importance of giving.
Activities to Inspire Gratitude Throughout the Year
It’s easy to think about gratitude at Thanksgiving, but it’s an important trait to cultivate year-round. Practicing gratitude throughout the year can help the lesson really sink in. Help teach your kids that gratitude isn’t only for Thanksgiving by engaging in these activities.
16. Keep a Personal Gratitude Journal
Keeping a gratitude journal has become a popular activity among adults, and it can be just as useful for kids. Help them pick out a special journal just for recording things they’re grateful for and have them write down one to three things every night.
Focusing on their blessings instead of all the things they wish they had can help kids, just like adults, feel less scarcity and envy and more overall happiness.
17. Keep a Family Gratitude Journal
You can also keep a gratitude journal together as a family. At a time when everyone is together, such as at dinner, have each family member take a turn writing in the gratitude journal. You can combine this activity with daily gratitude questions, covered below, by having everyone write their answer to the daily question in the journal.
At Thanksgiving, you can read from the family journal to remember all the good things you enjoyed throughout the year.
18. Ask a Daily Gratitude Question
As a conversation starter at dinner or before bed, create a daily routine of asking kids, “What are you most grateful for today?”
Simply asking the question can get kids to focus on the highlights of their day, rather than the lowlights, and can result in some better conversations than the standard “What did you do in school today?”
19. Use Social Media
As a one-time project, something you do every November, or a year-round goal, posting gratitudes to social media can be a powerful way for kids to focus on what they’re thankful for.
If you allow your kids to use social media, they can create a regular routine of posting a daily gratitude on Facebook or snapping a picture of something they’re grateful for and posting it to Instagram.
20. Model Gratitude
Research has shown that grateful parents raise grateful kids. According to research from Cornell University psychology professor Thomas Gilovich, the more gratitude parents feel, the more they inspire gratitude in their kids.
More often than not, kids learn from what you do more than what you say. So, to raise grateful kids, make sure you’re modeling gratitude for them. Find ways to show your appreciation for others, write thank-you notes, and seek out opportunities for giving. The more gratitude you express, the more your kids will pick up on it.
21. Show Appreciation
Another way to model gratitude for your kids is by showing them how much you appreciate their efforts. For example, you can say something like “Thank you for clearing your dishes from the table. You’re a great helper!” or “Your room looks so nice with all your books on your shelves. I’m so happy you remembered to put them away!”
22. Practice Good Spending Habits
Instilling gratitude in kids is inversely related to fulfilling their every desire. In addition to encouraging a focus on materialism, buying kids everything they want leads to entitlement behavior. It also prevents them from learning the important lesson of delayed gratification, which is invaluable in teaching them good money habits.
It can be difficult not to give in to your kids’ pleas, especially when it feels so easy just to pay a couple of dollars for a small toy. But teaching kids to wait is far more valuable than giving in to every whim. So, next time you’re out shopping with your kids and they’re begging for toys, tell them this is just a “look” day instead of a “buying” day. They may not respond well at first, but if you say it consistently, they’ll get the idea. You could also try using a wish list. When they come across something they want, let them know it’s not a buying day, but that they can add anything they see that they want to their list.
What your kids spend their money on is also important when it comes to encouraging gratitude and creating happiness. According to Gilovich’s research, people are happier when they spend their money on experiences rather than things. People also report feeling more thankful for experiential purchases than material ones. So, try encouraging your kids to value spending on experiences over things.
23. Make Service a Regular Habit
From serving meals to donating toys, opportunities for giving abound during the holidays. But those less fortunate have needs year-round, and there are always opportunities for service.
Making a habit of giving and volunteering can be a way for your family to encourage gratitude and empathy throughout the year. One way to include it in your family’s routine is to set aside toys and clothing in good condition and deliver them to a donation center together. Be sure to talk to your kids about the process and why giving is important.
You can discover a variety of charitable causes through an organization like GlobalGiving and decide as a family what causes to support. Or, you can look for opportunities to volunteer in your community. You can choose these yourself or involve your kids in finding opportunities that are particularly meaningful to them. For example, if your child is a pet lover, they might enjoy helping out at a local animal shelter.
24. Practice Random Acts of Kindness
Random acts of kindness are another terrific way to encourage a spirit of giving. Brainstorm with your kids all the different things you can do to make someone’s day better, and then choose some to put into action.
For example, you can put together bags of personal supplies, such as toothpaste, to keep in the car and pass out to those in need. You can deliver an anonymous gift to someone who needs cheering up. Or, you can pay the bill at the drive-through for the car behind you. Someone did this for my family once, and it truly made our day.
These acts don’t have to be large; the important thing is that they encourage your kids to think of others throughout the year.
25. Read Books Together
Reading books about concepts you’d like to teach your kids is always a good way to impart a lesson, especially with very young children. Kids can relate to the characters and stories, and you can feel good about the underlying messages.
Here are a few books on the concepts of giving and gratitude:
- “Please, Mr. Panda” and “Thank You, Mr. Panda” by Steve Antony
- “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein
- “Have You Filled a Bucket Today?” by Carol McCloud
- “Mama Panya’s Pancakes” by Mary Chamberlin
Thanksgiving is a time to count our blessings and express gratitude for all the good things in our lives. On other days of the year, the message of gratitude can sometimes get lost in the endless pursuit of keeping up with the Joneses, so it’s important to pause and remember to cultivate it.
There are so many benefits of gratitude, not the least of which is that when we consistently look for the good and adopt an “attitude of gratitude,” life is a lot happier. It’s a worthy lesson to instill in our kids, as it can increase their happiness and lessen their feelings of envy and entitlement. Even more, as parents, it can be especially heartwarming to witness acts of gratitude by our kids.
However, if we want to raise grateful kids, we need to remember gratitude is a skill, and as a skill, it needs to be practiced — not just on Thanksgiving, but throughout the year.
What do you do to instill gratitude in your kids? How do you practice gratitude throughout the year?