My husband and I recently decided to take our kids on a fun family day downtown. We took the kids to MOSH, let them run around the Friendship Fountain before walking over to River City Brewing Company, and then gave them all ice cream for dessert after lunch. We then hopped on the Skyway, which they loved. My husband and I were patting ourselves on the back, thinking we gave our kids a pretty spectacular day. But what happened next? Well, the kids wanted to go to Sweet Pete’s. I can’t say that I blame them there — Sweet Pete’s is one of my favorite spots in Jacksonville, too — but it was getting late, the younger kids were getting tired, and they’d already had ice cream. So we said no… and cue whining and crying. They actually had the audacity to complain, “We never get to do anything fun!”
Don’t get me wrong, my kids are good kids — even though they might sound spoiled right now! They’re kind and well-behaved, and generally, I’m proud of them. But gratitude? They have trouble with that one. They’re rarely just grateful for what they have. They always want more. Part of that, I know, is the age — my kids are all still so young. Benjamin, my oldest, is only 7 years old. So this isn’t entirely inappropriate for their stage of life. That means it’s on me to teach them how to be thankful for what they have. But how to do that is another question entirely. I clearly have been unprepared for this, even though developmentally, this kind of behavior is expected.
Their imaginations are growing, as are their memories, so they can better remember the fun times they have had, or a toy they saw before, and then imagine how much fun those things would be, and get upset because they can’t have them. So even though their feelings make sense, that doesn’t mean I’m absolved of my responsibility to raise them as children who are grateful for what they have. So how do you instill gratitude into your kids? Here’s what I’ve found:
1. Teach them to count their blessings.
Every day, we’ve started sitting down together, usually before bed, and listing the things we were really happy about that day. Maybe it’s a toy they really like, or a fun things they did at school, or a cool experience they got to have. It could be the yummy dinner that Mommy or Daddy made, or a new book they read, or spending time with their friends. It doesn’t matter what they choose, but every day, ask your kids to name a few things they’re grateful for. What were your favorite things today? What made you happy? What makes you thankful? Making a habit of listing the things to be grateful for helps them understand how much they really have, as opposed to always thinking they never get anything.
2. Model gratitude for them.
How much do we complain as parents? We come home, and we complain about our hard day. We complain about, uh, our kids. We complain about the weather, about sports teams, about money, about… everything. And while we’re old enough to understand the difference between small complaints and not being grateful for what we have, our kids are not — they’re little sponges, absorbing all of our negativity. How often are we coming home and talking about how happy we are? Expressing thanks? We’ve tried to start doing that more often. I’ll cook dinner, for example, and my husband will say to the kids, “Isn’t this food so good? Let’s all make sure to say thank you to Mommy for making this! She worked really hard!” Our kids learn behavior from us, and how will they learn to be grateful for what they have if we never model that for them?
3. Take something away.
Drastic times can occasionally call for drastic measures. If kids aren’t going to be appreciative of what they have, then so be it — they’ll lose something. Next time they start complaining about not having a new toy or a game, then take something away. Make sure to explain to them why, and then hide it somewhere for safekeeping. Tell them they can get it back with good behavior. After they’ve sufficiently proven that they have learned their lesson, they can get their toy or game back… and hopefully, with a better attitude moving forward.
4. Stop giving them stuff.
This is a hard one for me. I don’t buy them things all the time, but every now and then, I like to treat them to something unexpected: maybe a small piece of candy at the grocery store or a new toy at Target. But this, unfortunately, sets them up to have unhealthy expectations. Now they expect to get these things, even if I don’t do it every time, and when those expectations aren’t met, they get upset. That’s no one’s fault but my own, and the solution is to stop doing it. That makes me a little sad, because it makes me happy to make them happy. But if I’m really serious about raising more grateful kids, then it’s a necessity.
5. Encourage volunteering together.
My mom raised my brother and I to volunteer constantly. She never made a big deal out of it — it was just something we did all the time. But it stuck with me growing up. Now that I have kids of my own, I have planned to do the same thing. I thought they would be too young, but there are plenty of activities they can participate in! Here are just a few:
- Feeding Northeast Florida: Once a month, kids can go with their parents to volunteer at their mobile pantry, as well as at their family events. Kids can help hand food out, set up tables, and help arrange food for pick-up.
- The Mandarin Food Bank: Most of the year, the Mandarin Food Bank does not accept kids as volunteers, as they have area schools that send students to help out and there simply isn’t room. But there is a huge need at Thanksgiving and Christmas when more food and goods are given out than at any other time of year. You can take your kids, and they can help sort goods, arrange food, and hand it out to those in need.
- Homeless ministries: Homeless shelters like the Sulzbacher Center and City Rescue Mission usually accept older kids as volunteers, so if your kids are in middle or high school, this could be a good volunteer opportunity for them. If your kids are younger, try looking to churches. A parish I attended, for example, has a homeless ministry that serves meals downtown to the homeless once a month. I’ve taken Benjamin with me to serve food, and he really enjoyed it — as did the people receiving food, who lit up seeing him there!
- Clean-up events: Throughout the year, there are events dedicated to keeping our environment and beaches clean. Take your kids with you and help keep the First Coast beautiful!
- Nursing homes: This may require a little extra effort first, but it can be incredibly rewarding. A mom’s group I previously was a part of had regular visits to a local nursing home, where we would do things like a Halloween costume parade, springtime arts and crafts, Christmas carols, and so on for the residents. They loved it every time. So call around to your local nursing homes and see if any of the residents would like to receive visitors! A visit from a friendly, loving kid can go a long way toward lifting their spirits.
- Foster Closet: Foster Closet provides support for foster families. For kids 9 years and older, they can come with their parents to help sort toys and donated items, clean and assemble toys, and also assist with vacuuming or other light cleaning.
There is definitely no shortage of volunteer opportunities in the First Coast area, so this is just a small sampling to give you some ideas on how to get started on volunteering with your kids.
What do you do to instill gratitude in your children?