We know it is important to teach our children to be polite, to say “thank you”. But are we teaching them to be grateful? A recent Wall Street Journal article found here suggests that the act of being grateful is more than just knowing when to say thank you. As noted in the article, “The word ‘thanksgiving’ means giving of thanks,” says Dr. Robert Emmons, a psychologist and author at the University of California, Davis, who researches the effects of gratitude. “It is an action word. Gratitude requires action.”

How can we cultivate gratitude in our children? It can start with simple actions: make sure they write those thank you notes to family and friends who give them gifts or go out of their way to do nice things for them. Hand written notes are still always best, especially for older/less digitally savvy friends and family. Find fun stationery for them to use, or encourage them to make their own notecards. In many instances a thoughtfully written email can work as well, and can be sent and received more quickly. It may take a lot of reminding to get your son or daughter to write the thank you notes, but it is worth the struggle. Having to write why they are thankful for the gift and spend a few minutes thinking about the person is a good exercise, which will become easier for them to do the more they are encouraged to do it. And everyone loves to receive a thank you note.

Encourage your children to think about and keep track of things for which they are grateful. They can keep a gratitude journal (alone or with your help) in which they write on a regular basis. Not necessarily every day, but at least once a week. If they keep it up, it will be great for them to see how what they are grateful for can change over time. Not only will it feel good to remember and write these thoughts down, it will also be a good resource to which they can turn if they are feeling low.

My family finds that spending time in church and Sunday School helps us to feel grateful. When the children were young, I conducted a lot of Sunday School lessons at home, with the help of books, games, and Veggie Tales. My kids still remember the Veggie Tale songs and stories!

The coming holiday season brings lots of opportunities to cultivate a grateful spirit. Find a church or shelter that feeds the hungry on Thanksgiving Day, and volunteer there as a family to bring and serve food. Start making plans to do this now, as most organizations providing this service are very organized and will already know what and how many volunteers they need. Best to sign up early so your good intentions can be realized.

At Christmas time for many years, I would take the children to choose letters to Santa from the U.S. Post Office. Once we chose some letters we would all become Santa’s helpers, as we shopped for the toys and clothing on the list, and wrapped and sent off the Christmas gifts. This is one of many ways in which your children can help other children have a merrier Christmas. Check with your children’s schools and with local businesses to see if they are organizing a gift drive. Make sure your children are involved in every step of the process! (If they are Santa Claus believers, emphasize that you are merely helping Santa and his elves get the job done.)

Studies have shown that gratitude strengthens our immune systems, helps us sleep better, and reduces stress and depression. Don’t we all want this for our children and for ourselves? Make sure you are cultivating gratitude in your family. Let us know how you do it!