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.