Teaching Young Kids to be Thankful

By Gena Kittner

Getting a child to say “please” and “thank you” isn’t terribly hard. We demand it. Want some fruit snacks? Say “please.” The Target lady just gave you a sticker, what do you say?

But what I’ve been pondering, as the season of thankfulness is upon us, is how we teach our kids to mean it.

In other words, how do we teach young kids to be thankful?

How to teach toddlers, preschoolers, and young children thankfulness, kindness, and gratitude | Thanksgiving | Holiday Season

Clearly struggling myself, I’ve turned to some of my awesome mommy friends for advice and inspiration.

“Part of our bedtime routine is to talk about what we are thankful for that day,” said Kirsten, mom to 3-year-old Emma. I met Kirsten in my first mom’s group in Madison, Wisconsin. “[Emma] mostly uses the time as a way to talk about what she liked best during her day, but then we talk about how fortunate she is to be able to have what she has and hope that we can instill a sense of gratitude.”

I love this idea. I used to include in Ellie’s bedtime routine a time when we talked about all the cool things we did that day. Lately I’ve been bypassing this in an effort to expedite bedtime, but I think it’s time to slow things down and do a nightly thankfulness recap.

Rachael, a fellow mom I met during my daughter Ellie’s gymnastics class in Tuscon, has two daughters: 4-year-old Aliyah and 2-year-old Sydney. While it’s not thankfulness exactly, Rachael tries to reaffirm kindness whenever her daughters show it.

“When they do something nice for each other I really praise them,” Rachael said.

To me, kindness and thankfulness go hand-in-hand, and I think too often we focus on what our kids should be doing and don’t give them credit for the small acts of kindness they exhibit every day.

When discussing teaching young kids to be thankful, the conversation unfailingly turns to the dreaded thank-you notes. We all understand the importance of the traditional hand-written missives, but when parents are doing most of the writing, how much are our kids really learning?

My sister-in-law Anne has two boys, ages 5 and 8, who both have birthdays in October. This time of year she’s drowning in thank-you notes.

There’s talk among friends, Anne says, about the merits of a thank you form letter. It would go something like this:

Dear _______,

Thank you for coming to my party and for the awesome ________. It was kind of you to think of me.

Sincerely, _________

Some find this too informal or a thank-you note cop-out, but for a kid like Doug, who is 8 and actually can fill in the blanks, it might be more meaningful than having him simply sign his name to notes largely written by his parents, Anne said.

I fully endorse this idea. Bring on the thank-you form notes, you’ll never get an eye-roll from me.

One thing we do in our home is talk about who gave Ellie the toys she’s playing with or the cool shirt she’s wearing. We hope by reminding her who gave her these gifts, it will help her understand these are special things, and she has family and friends who love and care about her.

Sometimes she remembers, sometimes she doesn’t. Either way we’re having the conversation, and I think that’s often the best parents can do.


photo-3Gena is a Midwest transplant living in Tucson, Arizona with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, Ellie. When not killing scorpions, Gena writes about food and family. Follow her on Twitter @genakittner, and check out her previous guest posts on Mommy Sanest.

22 thoughts on “Teaching Young Kids to be Thankful

  1. If you’re able, I think it’s a great idea to have your kids help you pick out food or clothes or toys to donate to charity. Obviously, they have to be a bit older to understand, but saying, “Hey, lots of kids don’t get any toys on Christmas. Let’s go pick something out to donate to a kid whose family isn’t as lucky as we are.” can instill a really good message of thankfulness and giving in them.

    I love the nightly thankfulness recap too! Perhaps do it during dinner time to keep bedtime brief?

    • Adopting a family or giving to a charity is a fantastic idea. I think any time kids can get excited about giving to others is wonderful. Also, talking about what we are thankful for at dinner instead of bedtime is a good thought. I think in general I have to remember to slow things down and not always be worried about trying to have things — dinner, bath, bed — by a specific time. Thanks for the ideas!

      • My mom used to make my brother and me each share 3 things we learned at school that day over dinner every night. It got to the point where during school I’d keep my eyes out for things I could “learn” so I would have something to say over dinner. She tricked me into paying better attention in school! I think the same idea could apply for thankfulness!

  2. Lovely post I think keeping the need for being thankful in our children’s mind is most important. Like you said having the conversation can definitely be the most important step.

    • Thanks Tiffany! I agree, it’s so easy to get caught up in the usual daily craziness that even a short conversation can make a big difference.

  3. Another thought… though it’s not seasonably-topical at the moment… garden if you have time/money! Even if it’s just a tomato plant in a pot. And involve your kids in planting, watering, and harvesting. It teaches them where their food comes from (not the grocery store!), and then you can talk about how some families don’t have enough to eat. “Let’s eat this food we grew and then go to the store and buy some food for people who don’t have enough to eat.” My best friend does this with her kids, and ADDED BONUS, it gets them to eat their veggies because, OMG WE GREW IT OURSELVES!!!

    • This is such a great thought, thanks Ali! We love to garden and my daughter loves picking tomatoes. I never thought about wrapping that into a conversation about how some people aren’t as fortunate to have fresh tomatoes in their yard, but that’s a really good point.

  4. Great post – I often struggle coming up with questions when talking with my nephews. This gives me some new ideas for conversation starters with them.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing this with the Monday #pinitparty. It has really made me think. I get into kind of a rush to get the kids to bed and maybe a stop and chat about the day and what made them happy would be great. Gonna give it a go. I need to slow down. They won’t be babies for long. Have pinned x

    • Having a young child requires a lot of interactions that I consider “transactional” (for lack of a better word). I often feel like my husband and I are just shuffling my daughter from one task that needs to be checked off the list to the next, especially at night. It’s dinner then bath then PJs then story then bed. This post is a great reminder for me too, and we’re going to start trying to do this with my daughter! Thanks for stopping by!

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