How to Raise Grateful Kids in a Season of Selfishness


Teaching our kids to be content with what they have – and grateful for what they have – takes years of consistent lessons. But it’s worth the work, because gratitude might be the biggest gift we can give our kids. It will keep them healthier, give them a healthy perspective, improve their attitude and help them cope with the stresses life WILL throw at them. Let’s look at specific ways to raise grateful kids.

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I took my kids to the store last week to buy gifts for Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. I carefully explained the goal of the trip: pick out fun and needed items to send to other children for the holidays. I also directly stated that shopping for ourselves was NOT part of this trip. This 5-second video clip sums up how well that went over:

Not long after this clip, she dissolved into a sobbing puddle on the less-than-clean store floor.

I find it slightly ironic that the season of thanksgiving and gratitude is directly followed by the season of “I want” and “Can I have?” I find it more ironic still that the key to a less selfish holiday season is right in front of us if we’re intentional about taking hold. I’ll tell you what it is, and just in case you aren’t wowed right out of the box, I’ll build a strong defense for why it carries so much more weight than most of us realize. Then I’ll dig into four ways we can put it into action for a more content holiday season in our homes.


Ok, here it is: Teach gratitude. Model gratitude. Encourage more gratitude.

I’ll admit it sounds a little “been there, done that” and over-simplified, but we scoured the research and the results were clear: nearly every aspect of a person’s life improves when he or she is more grateful.

Benefits of gratitude

Check out this list! Gratitude leads to ALL of these.

Some of the benefits of gratitude are individual. Gratitude reduces anxiety, depression and risk of substance abuse. It improves physical health, ability to adapt to difficulties and enjoy life. Being grateful also improves relationships with others. It creates community and connections, makes you more agreeable and likely to forgive and trust others. It can be a starting point for strong friendships.

ALL of these things get BETTER when we practice GRATITUDE.

If you need more evidence, check out our article on things to be grateful for! You’ll find the science behind all the benefits.

My focus on gratitude for this blog post gave me a different outlook this week. When my 8-year-old popped some microwave popcorn without taking off the plastic wrap and walked over trailing the mingled smells of fear and burning, I checked my first instinct to get mad. I glanced in the microwave, saw no major damage and announced I was grateful. It was over in an instant. No yelling, no tears – a better experience for me and for him.

Raising Grateful Kids: Gratitude Slays Selfishness

One other big selling point for making the time and putting in the energy to foster attitudes of gratitude this holiday season: 

Gratitude helps us notice positive things and keeps the focus on what we have rather than what we don’t. 

Selfishness often comes from a place of jealousy. Think about it: we (including our kids) get sucked into looking out at what others have, or what we could or want to have, rather than looking in at what we already have. We all do it, and I’m not judging. But it seems to ratchet up around the holidays, doesn’t it? Holiday cards and Facebook posts blast us with pictures of other families’ amazing vacations and achievements. Catalogs and commercials conspire to point out to our children so many things they don’t have and might love.

But how does the perspective shift when we intentionally look for things we’re grateful for – and not just appreciation for things we receive from others, but for things we already have (the people and opportunities and even small blessings in our lives)? 

There’s not much room left for selfishness when our hearts and minds are full of gratitude.

Raising Grateful Kids: Giving the Gift of Gratitude

Jillian holding thankful sign in school picture

The idea of cultivating contentment and gratitude in my house around the holidays has a lot of appeal. It would keep my kids’ focus in the right place (not on the items circled in Sharpie in the Walmart catalog or anything on the Apple website). It would keep their eyes open to how much we already have, and to the others in the world and even in our neighborhood who can’t say the same.

My sister shared a story she heard about a teacher who asked a group of kids to write down everything they wanted for Christmas. Then he asked them to write down everything they were thankful for. He pointed out that the gratitude list was longer, and would always be longer. This point resonated with me: You’ll run out of things to want before you run out of things to be thankful for. And that doesn’t get less true after the holiday. What a gift we give the next generation if we build in them a legacy of gratitude that simply doesn’t leave much room for discontent.

Kids born 2001 and later are considered Gen Z, and much of their story has yet to be written. But every other living generation has a personality:

  1. Greatest Generation – lived through the Great Depression and fought in WWII. Produced a bunch of presidents including John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
  2. Silent Generation – cautious. Made their mark in pop culture through revolutions in music, TV and film.
  3. Baby Boomers – optimistic, driven and team-oriented. Living life large and often on credit. More than 75 percent of this generation earned more than their parents did at the same age, but only about a third had more wealth than their parents due to debt.  
  4. Gen X – street-smart generation that embraced the start of the digital age. Increased divorce rates and mothers working outside the home.
  5. Millennials – massive buying power and relaxed work styles.
    (Want to know which generation you are? This
    Buzzfeed video compares and contrasts the seven living generations.)

My kids are 11, 8 and 5, and I’m troubled when I read sources painting today’s kids as the “unhappy generation.” And let me be clear: when I say “sources,” I’m talking about big dogs like Columbia, Johns Hopkins and the American Academy of Pediatrics. This is not Chicken Little stuff. I want my kids to get a message in 10 or 15 years labeled “You know you’re a child of the 2010s if…” and laugh hysterically at the silly, fun and memorable milestones of their childhoods.

My childhood straddled the 80s and 90s. I’m not quite a millennial, but I’m kind of young to identify with Gen X. So here are throw-backs that get me every time:

  • You can’t resist finishing the rest of these lyrics: “In West Philadelphia Born And Raised
  • You would listen closely to the radio so that you could record your favorite song…on a tape.
  • You predicted your future career, house, and marriage by playing M.A.S.H. (This does NOT refer to the TV show. Kristie and I realized that the couple years separating us in age apparently were crucial years, as she does NOT remember this game. Travesty. I mourn for the idiocy she missed.)
  • You remember where you were when the Challenger disaster happened.
  • You wanted to be as cool as Punky Brewster.
  • You took that little extra time in the morning to get the perfect peg on your jeans.

See a bigger list for the 80s and one for the 90s.

Photos of Mary and Kristie in the 80s and 90s

Oh, the 80s and 90s. Fond memories and cringe-worthy photos. If you’ve got a good one, share it with us in the comments!

When I look at the predominant themes in these lists, I realize how much of my childhood and adolescence ties back to music, TV, technological advances (RIP VHS and cassette tapes) and world events. The warp speed evolution of technology and other significant changes in our world create new stressors for today’s kids, but I choose to believe we can still create a legacy for them that isn’t defined by a massive increase in depression and anxiety or school violence.

The new generation has new things to feel anxious and unhappy about, but they will always have things for which they can be grateful. And if we shift our focus from raising happy kids, to raising grateful kids, we create a place where selfishness and discontent struggle to take root.

We wrote about our Top 10 Fun Ways to Be a More Grateful Familybut let’s look more at the four biggest (and most realistic) ways to raise grateful kids.

1. Embrace the power of saying “Thank You”

It’s good to BE grateful. But it’s even better to SHOW gratitude. It takes those internal benefits and starts a domino effect that spills into classrooms, lunchrooms, playgrounds, courts and fields.

A 2017 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology suggests that we need to tell others specifically what we appreciate. Writing it down amplifies the benefits even more. It forces us to reflect on WHY we’re thankful – translating into things like a better mood, higher satisfaction and a positive attitude.

In our Honor Veterans SALT effect family voluntering box, we partnered with the nonprofit Honor Flight, which flies veterans to Washington, D.C., at no cost to visit the war memorials. Veterans spend an emotional day at those memorials, but one of the most impactful moments of the day is when they do “mail call” and each veteran receives a package of grateful letters. Look at the impact:

My family did the Honoring Veterans box together last year and my kids STILL talk about it. I know it made an impression on them. 

There’s also evidence that when we are intentional about thanking people, they feel appreciated and valued, and are then more likely to help and thank others. Doesn’t this sound like something that could literally change the world? It’s such a small act, and we love those the most! A little salt goes a long way.

Just before Kristie and I really started to dig in to this post, she read this completely unexpected email:

I hope this message finds you well. As part of Ohio State University’s Kindness Week, we asked members of the Panhellenic Association to recognize faculty, staff, advisors, etc. who they believe have positively influenced their experience at OSU. One of your students wrote:

“Kristie cares so deeply for her students, not only for their education but for their well-being. She takes time to teach us about any resources that would help us and has pushed back deadlines because of students’ stress. She is so open and helpful to students while also being a great and impressive professor.”

Thank you for continuing to make a positive impact on the Ohio State community and for being a constant support for your students!!

I got a hard copy letter in my office mailbox from the dean about a survey the university administers to all graduating seniors where they ask what faculty member most influenced students during their college years. The letter let me know that 33 students listed me at the faculty member who most influenced them, and congratulated me for my positive impact on students. I work at one of the largest universities in the country, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that our dean took the time to ask this question, tabulate results and send me a note of appreciation for my commitment to students.

When we get these notes, we feel valued and appreciated. We feel like our time and work matter, and we want to do something to pass this feeling along. This is the cycle of gratitude in action!

Bulletin board full of thank you notes

This is Kristie’s office bulletin board, full of thank you cards from students and colleagues. We save every single note and thank you email!

What does this look like at home for the holidays:

  • Check out Turkey on the Table, an adorable holiday centerpiece with tail feathers designed for personalized words of thanks. Have your kids fill them out with the year and put them in an envelope when pack up the decorations. Each year, you can look back and see how the reasons for gratitude have changed. Through a partnership with Feeding America, each turkey purchased donates 10 meals. How amazing is that?
  • Sit down with your kids and write a list of things they are thankful for. Post it on your fridge or let kids use it as a bookmark as an ongoing reminder of the many things they DO have, in a world that seems to always focus on what they DON’T have. Our Activities for your Advent Calendar free download include a whole list of gratitude-related activities.
  • Download our printable gratitude quotes to display at home or grab our Christmas lunchbox note cards (many of them focus on gratitude) to stick in lunches or books your kids are reading during the holidays. Each download is $4.99 and you can print at home. (We also donate 10% of the purchase to The Lunch Box Ohio, a nonprofit whose mission is to end childhood hunger by increasing access to fresh, local, and nutritious lunches in the summer months.)
Gratitude Quotes

Christmas Lunchbox Note Cards

  • Get kids in the habit of sending thank you notes for gifts/service given.
  • Look for ways to give thanks beyond the expected. Leave a note telling your neighbor you appreciate that he or she lives next door.

Kristie's kids writing thank you notes
Kristie’s kids writing thank you notes with some help from her brother.

2. Model an attitude of gratitude

Earlier this year, I lugged my kids around first by car and then on foot to deliver thank you notes and $5 Starbucks gift cards to parents who served with me on a committee for the school carnival. All of the people I thanked could easily afford their own cup of coffee. But they helped me SO much, and I wanted them to know I appreciated their time and effort. I told my kids WHY I did this. An article in Greater Good magazine notes that modeling and teaching gratitude shows your kids “that blessings abound and that being thankful is a valued attitude.”

Starbucks thank you

Modeling an attitude of gratitude sounds simple, but making this the norm rather than the exception will take some more work on my part. As I think about my role models, and the people in my life whom I respect the most, I see this trait. They handle trials with grace, and I wonder about the role gratitude plays in that.

Kristie shared a beautiful story about her grandmother with me last week. She described her grandma as the kind of woman who aged with grace and passed away well loved by many. Kristie and her mom found a prayer journal in her grandma’s things after she died, and its pages were full of gratitude.

“Thank you for the routine of my days with its care, good friends and things to do.”

I’m sure she had aches and pains, and her family was not without sorrow, but she found reasons to be grateful and she wrote it down. She didn’t know the impact this would have – they were her personal thoughts in her journal. But Kristie and her mom spent hours running copies of phrases from the journal to share with the many family members mentioned by name. What a cherished gift and an amazing example.

Kristie's grandma's journal

This is Kristie with her mom and grandma, two women who taught her a lot about gratitude in every circumstance and every season of life.

What does this look like:

  • At a family meal, encourage everyone to share something they are grateful for. Start with your own story.
  • Pause in moments of frustration, take stock and make a decision to focus on the positive of a situation rather than the negative.
  • Add a gratitude column or page to your planner or calendar. When you’re unexpectedly grateful for something small, jot it down before you forget.

3. Take advantage of teachable moments

Raising grateful kids requires conversations about both the wins and the losses. Conversations about being grateful when things are good, and finding reasons for gratitude when life looks bleak. Be intentional about these conversations. Keep in mind that when phones, tablets, computers and TVs turn off for a while, sometimes conversation fills that void.

What does this look like:

  • Play a game, read a book together or shoot some hoops, because those are activities you can do while talking. As kids share about their days and their lives, you can ask questions and offer wisdom.
  • When you or your kids go through challenging circumstances, talk about them and consider other reasons to be thankful. Discuss if/how this changes your attitude and potentially your actions.

4. Make helping others the norm

It feels good to help others, whether it’s chores around the house, neighborly acts of kindness or formal service projects.

Encouraging kids to give back is one of Huffington Post’s “11 Tips for Instilling True Gratitude in Your Kids,” because “when kids give energy to help others, they’re less likely to take things like health, home and family for granted.”

What does this look like:

  • Check out our list of 71 Unexpected Ways to Volunteer as a Family for ideas ranging from quick-and-easy to bigger-investment
  • Ask about local help needed with raking leaves or walking dogs. Encourage kids to donate any money earned to a local charity.
  • Our SALT effect box “Give Hope to Sick Kids” offers perspective by putting you in the shoes of the many families whose lives revolve around a sick child. It also gives you a way to help.

BONUS: For a fifth way to raise grateful kids, as well as examples and resources we just couldn’t fit in today’s post (like science that shows some people actually struggle more to feel grateful), grab our free download “The Ultimate Guide to Raising Grateful Kids.”

The Ultimate Guide to Raising Grateful Kids

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