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Showing gratitude: Authors, blogger share tips on how to help children be thankful
Janna McFerson Wade and her husband, Matt, with their two children Nora, 21 months, and Isaac, 3 months. - photo by Lottie Peterson
Thanksgiving happens in March for Tiffany Ericksons family. To celebrate St. Patricks Day and the luck of the Irish, the mother of four hides pots of gold filled with pennies and candy throughout the house for her children, who range in age from 6 to 13 years old.

For each piece of gold that is collected, Ericksons children must acknowledge something that they are lucky to have. This tradition, Erickson said in an interview with the Deseret News, is to teach her children that rather than attributing everything they have to luck, they should consider their possessions as blessings for which they should always be grateful.

As Thanksgiving falls between the candy craze of Halloween and the wish-list frenzy of Christmas, it can be challenging for children to maintain an attitude of gratitude. Erickson and other authors offers suggestions on how to help children learn to be thankful and show gratitude.

The skill of gratitude

Growing up, I kind of thought gratitude was something that you either had or you didnt, said Erickson, a Heber resident and a contributor to the Power of Moms website at I realized later that its more of a skill that can be learned.

Research has found that the concept of gratitude is most understood and internalized when children are 7 to 10 years old, according to an article in the 2008 Journal of School Psychology.

Gratitude is an important life skill, but it is also a skill that leads to several benefits, wrote David A. Christensen in his recent book A Thankful Heart (Cedar Fort, $12.99). While one of the central benefits of being grateful is happiness, Christensen wrote, expressing gratitude could also improve relationships with friends and family, lower self-centeredness and raise self-esteem. For children specifically, expressing gratitude could give them greater productivity and satisfaction at school, he wrote.

Thank-you notes

One way parents can help their children cultivate gratitude is by encouraging them to regularly write thank-you notes, according to Kelly Browne, author of 101 Ways to Say Thank You for Kids and Teens" (Plain Sight Publishing, $11.99), which was released earlier this year. Beginning this practice when children are younger can prove beneficial, wrote Browne in the book, because it is an art form that has a lifetimes worth of use. Whether theyre thanking a friend for a gift, a coach for his or her support or teachers for widening the doors of opportunity, thank-you notes are a simple yet meaningful way to express gratitude in all situations.

The practice of writing thank-you notes has been a part of author Janna McFerson Wades life for as long as she can remember.

My mom is such a proponent of writing thank-you notes. I always thought that if I didnt write a thank-you note, she would disown me, Wade said in an interview. At first, I wrote thank-you notes out of guilt, but the older I got, the more I realized how much more important its becoming because everything is digital now. Its just so refreshing to see someone actually take the time to handwrite a note. I feel like a million dollars when I get one.

When Wades first child was born almost two years ago, she was overwhelmed by all of the kindness and gifts she received. She said that the number of thank-you notes she ended up writing was nearly 200. The Orange County, California, author decided to write a storybook so her daughter could know how she was welcomed into the world as well as the importance of writing thank-you notes herself someday.

Her book I Write Thank You Notes was published in 2014, teaches the principles behind writing a thank-you note and has an interactive component where children can write notes to the characters in the story.

Actually teaching children to sit down and write a thank-you note helps them reflect on the fact that someone took the time out of their busy day to do something for them, Wade said.

If children are too young to write, parents can write thank-you notes and then have their children color the note, Wade suggested. This can familiarize younger children with the concept of gratitude until they are old enough to write thank-you notes. As the mother of two children who are 3 months and 21 months old, Wade has also begun teaching her older child to say thank you.

Children who are a little older but perhaps still too young to write an entire thank-you note can participate in the process by signing their name at the end, Erickson said. She recently practiced this with her kindergarten-age son, who ended up writing his name eight times before officially signing his name on a thank-you note for his aunt and uncle.

Practicing daily

Creating situations for children to reflect on things they are thankful for is another way parents can help their kids develop gratitude, Erickson said.

It is a skill that has to be taught; you cant really assume that its a skill theyre just going to pick up," Erickson said. "Thats why it is important to have some legitimate gratitude practices in place where they actually have to be taught the skill.

One way Erickson does this with her children is by recording positive aspects of each day in a What Went Well Journal. She said this practice started through her desire for her children to celebrate the little things, like sunshine, rain and getting to read a book.

When her children were younger, Erickson also had thankful time. Each night before going to bed, she and her children would list the things for which they were grateful. This helped her children see all the different ways blessings can manifest themselves, Erickson wrote in an article on teaching children gratitude. Now that her children are older and their schedules are more hectic, Erickson said, she continues this practice by having Thankful Thursday at dinnertime.

A lot of (my practices) come from just pointing out things that (my kids) might not understand or see as a blessing because they think everybody has it, Erickson said. They dont know that a homemade meal is a blessing because they think everyone gets homemade meals. Theyre little and they think the world is their little neighborhood.

Erickson has tried expanding her childrens world through literature, exposing them to books with protagonists who face all types of dilemmas, such as The Giver, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and A Christmas Carol. Each of these books provides her children with a better understanding of relationships as well as the lesson that life should not be taken for granted, Erickson said.

Wade is teaching her 21-month-old daughter how to pray and thank Heavenly Father for things.

Before praying, we try to think of and list all of the things were grateful and happy about, Wade said. One of the most rewarding times was when I looked over and opened my eyes during a prayer and saw that my daughter was folding her arms. I had never even taught her that.

Similarly, Erickson has noticed her children being thankful for things she never would have acknowledged as a child, including the beauty of a sunset and the comforting feeling of sitting in a warm car on a cold winter day.

Through teaching my kids the concept of gratitude, my own gratitude has increased, Erickson said. I thought I was helping them, but in the end I was really helping myself.
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