Date: November 1, 2012
As families across the Triangle sit down to turkey and all the trimmings this month, many will echo our forbearers and express thanks for the blessings and bounty they enjoy. Whether or not children at the table are asked to participate, they learn about the importance of gratitude, a concept that is part of all major religions, spiritual practices and moral teachings.
But helping children learn to be thankful is too important to be limited to the third Thursday in November. Kids who know how to be grateful are less likely to complain about not having the latest video game. What's more, scientific studies have proven that people who regularly express gratitude are healthier and better-adjusted than those who don't.
While opinions on how to teach gratitude vary, the consensus is that children are never too young to begin learning — and that they learn best by example.
"Children are typically able to express gratitude without being prompted by around age 5," says Daniel Sheras, a child and adolescent psychologist with Orenstein Solutions in Cary. "Since gratitude is learned, parents play a major role in instilling this in their children." Parents can explain why it's important to say "please" and "thank you" and have children write thank-you notes, he says.
"Parents [also] can instill gratitude by modeling it themselves through their actions and interactions with others," Sheras says. " If children see that their parents are grateful, they are more likely to be grateful themselves."
Chuck and Kim Millsaps of Raleigh look for "teachable moments" to show their three children the importance of gratitude. "I hope that for them it was a natural response to seeing their parents interact with others," Kim says. "It's also a posture of the heart. You have to watch for those teachable moments and take the time to be aware when these moments come up."
One practice their family has enjoyed since their oldest child could put pencil to paper is writing letters. Their older children are now in college and their youngest is a sophomore in high school.
"During November, we encourage them to write a note to someone they're thankful for," Kim says. "Over the years, they've written to favorite teachers, principals, family members, youth group leaders ... They enjoyed the process and always got great feedback."
For the Dorfmans of Raleigh, teaching the importance of gratitude to their two daughters involves sharing their money, time and creativity with others less fortunate.
"For us, it is about acknowledging that the advantages and privileges we have, a lot of others don't have," Robin Dorfman says. "We have a responsibility to help."
This practice is also a major tenet of their religion, Judaism, which calls for the faithful to engage in acts of loving kindness, often taking the form of charity. The Dorfmans' oldest daughter, a fifth-grader, has seen this practice in action since she was 2 years old, when they "adopted" a family through Jewish Family Services and provided them with a memorable Hanukkah.
Dorfman says both her girls — her youngest is in second grade — are encouraged to devote a third of their allowance toward giving. They also put money for charity in a special box every Friday night during the Sabbath observance.
But their favorite gratitude practice is organizing an annual holiday community project. For three years in a row, the girls headed up a drive to collect gently used Build-a-Bear dolls from friends, neighbors and classmates — and even persuaded the Build-a-Bear store in Raleigh's Crabtree Valley Mall to donate boxes and other accessories. They gave the bears to children at the Raleigh Rescue Mission and, most recently, the base at Fort Bragg.
"The girls love it," Dorfman says. "They get so excited when the children open their bears, telling them the story of each bear. We're not sure what we're going to do this year, but it will be similar. For my kids, I want this experience to be interactive. It's the only way it works."
A grateful perspective
Other families encourage a mindset of gratitude to help their children develop inner peace and concern for others. Michelle Petrie of Raleigh, who has a daughter, son and stepson, practices Buddhism, a discipline strongly focused on gratitude. At its most basic, "we're told to be grateful for life as a human itself, because we could have been born an insect," Petrie says.
With this framework in mind, Petrie tries to instill in her children a sense of gratitude even when times are difficult. If her second-grader, Tristan, is upset that his teacher downgraded his status on the color-coded class behavior chart, Petrie helps redirect his thoughts with a statement such as, "At least you didn't get the lowest color on your chart."
"This way, they can reframe a situation and understand that it's not the end of the world if something bad happens," she says.
It seems to be working. Recently, a fender-bender landed Petrie's car in the shop. When Tristan found out, he rubbed her arm and said, "Don't worry, Mom, we can just ride our bikes to school." Which they did, much to Tristan's delight.
As we begin the season of giving, parents should recognize that one of the best gifts is free.
"Gratitude is what we name the gift from God that happens when we're in a long line at the grocery store or we're cleaning up a puppy's poop from the rug" and we can still focus on what's truly important to us, says Amy Laura Hall, a professor at Duke Divinity School who is also a Methodist minister and blogger at profligategrace.com.
Seeing gratitude as a gift, regardless of its source, is something everyone can embrace, Hall says. Now and throughout the year, parents can help their children recognize and appreciate this gift. They'll thank you for it later.
Suzanne Wood is a Raleigh-based freelance writer and mother of three.
Thanksgiving volunteer opportunities
Share the spirit of gratitude and giving during the holiday that celebrates being thankful. Here are some Thanksgiving volunteer opportunities your family can consider.
Annual Chatham Hunger Walk
Chatham OutReach Alliance Inc. (CORA)
Walk to help raise money for the CORA food pantry. Nov.4, 2012.
Annual Thanksgiving Community Dinner
Durham Rescue Mission • durhamrescuemission.org
Help set up for the event, cook and serve meals, run game booths and more.
Gobbles to Go Delivery
Raleigh Rescue Mission
Deliver Thanksgiving meals and visit briefly with recipients.
Thanksgiving Dinners Program
Durham Social Services • thevolunteercenter.org
Get matched with a family in need to provide them with a Thanksgiving meal. Sign up by Nov. 13.