From the time our children are toddlers, we are teaching them good manners by asking "what's the magic word?" or offering the gentle reminder of "what do we say?" when another person does something nice for them. And while that's a great first step, it's one thing to get children to say something, and another thing altogether to get them to believe it. How then do you encourage children to be truly grateful for all that they have, whether it's the best of everything or a more modest lifestyle? And how can you help them develop empathy for others whose lives might be less bountiful than yours?
The Thanksgiving season makes all of us pause and reflect on what we have and what we are thankful for. Schools often do their part by having kids prepare special projects, or by offering themed assemblies on the meaning of the holiday, with an emphasis on community building. But there is much that can be done at home as well, and as families gather young and old around the table (or around the television set to watch the big game), there are many ways in which to keep gratitude at the forefront.
Attitude of Gratitude
Sigrid Bouab, a mother and grandmother from Upper Saddle River, says that as an immigrant from Iceland, "Thanksgiving is a great holiday for us because this is a wonderful country that we live in." Bouab is very proud of the close-knit family that has developed over the years, with her brothers and their wives as well as her two sons, who are in their 30s. "There are lots of kids and there's lots of warmth between us," she says, noting that her nuclear family still gets together regularly for Sunday dinner.
This Thanksgiving, she adds, she will be especially appreciative for her grandson, who is now one-year-old. She says that a sense of appreciation in her children evolved naturally over time, seeing how family members treated each other and how they always made spending time together a priority.
Her son, Selim, of Midland Park, and his wife, Jennifer, concur.
"I am so lucky to have been born into a close-knit family and to have married into one," Jennifer says. "We know that we are blessed to have met each other and to have a beautiful baby."
Selim says he expects that his son will share his gratitude for a "great family with a lot of closeness. On Thanksgiving, we always go around the table and talk about what we are thankful for in the past year."
As their son grows older, Jennifer plans to emphasize, as her parents did, that "we have so many opportunities being Americans Ð clean clothes, water, things that people don't have throughout the world. We should never take that for granted."
Many parents also think that having their children do community service as a way to give back is an essential part of the Thanksgiving holiday. Shirell Gross of River Vale is the mother of 8-year-old and 17-year-old boys and president of the Bergen and Passaic chapter of Jack and Jill of America, an organization that provides social, cultural and educational opportunities for youth. She says that while her sons "don't have a choice" about participating in a food drive during this time of year, over time the experience has become important to them.
"It helps them to understand the level of need and know that they are out there as part of the solution," Gross says. "They understand that it's a privilege to eat."
Rob Schwinge, youth pastor at Powerhouse Christian Church in Wyckoff, adds that "there's a lot of groundwork that can be done before Thanksgiving" in terms of getting children to appreciate doing good works.
"There is a lot of power in getting teens away from their environment," he says. "Whether that's going to a homeless shelter and serving there or going to a children's hospital."
Schwinge says that if you want your children to volunteer, you should be out there doing it with them.
"You need to serve with them and be alongside them," he says. "If you are trying to do that when they are older, there will be some pushback. But you have to push through that, and that's possible by acknowledging that they might not want to do it, but asking whether they would be able to give an hour or two to the project."
Schwinge believes teens especially respond to their parents coming to them humbly and asking for that favor.
Teens might also prefer to give back in a venue with peers, and that's perfectly fine, says Marcia Kagedan, educational director at Jewish Community Center of Paramus.
"Teens can do things with peers in terms of helping," she says. "Often around 12 and 13, when they are having bar and bat mitzvahs, they can get involved in a personal mitzvah. This is very practical, and they relate to that. But there are many different ways for teens to get involved in their community, regardless of the occasion or time of year."
Although we might wonder whether our children are truly getting it when it comes to appreciating the life they have, Gross says parents should realize that with kids, you are not always going to get immediate feedback.
"I think it's very rare," she says, "that in our kids' lives you are going to see the benefit and fruits of your labor when you are with them. It clicks when they get older and becomes part of their understanding and interacting with the world around them."
Getting Kids Involved
Have frank discussions about people who are less fortunate as a springboard for deciding what kind of volunteer work your family would like to get involved with.
Volunteering through your religious organization is often a good idea, since your children might be with other volunteers they already know.
Encourage children to think about the world around them. By discussing current events or even surfing the Internet together, children can be exposed to the living conditions of the less fortunate throughout the world.
Don't shy away from discussing what you see in your community. For example, if you see a homeless shelter or a food bank, explain to your child what goes on there.