Making Thanksgiving Meaningful for Young Children
As Thanksgiving approaches, I naturally begin to think about the story I was taught as a child about the Pilgrims and Native Americans. I still have pictures of myself standing up in a school play, dressed in a feather headband, acting out a scene about the Mayflower. Times have changed. Teaching preschoolers about our history can be more complicated, and quite frankly, difficult for them to fully comprehend. How then, can we make this holiday meaningful for our little ones, while avoiding the perpetuation of stereotypes that we were introduced to when we were younger?
When I think about my own children, I am always surprised at how they find amazement in observing the tiniest of things that we as adults take for granted. Think about your child seeing a field of pumpkins for the first time or noticing a flock of geese. Children are often awe-struck and so easily excited by the novelty of these experiences. This demonstrates a child’s innate ability to be appreciative. I suggest we build on this natural inclination of appreciation and help our children explore their thankfulness in a more developmentally appropriate and sensitive way.
Beyond teaching children their manners and requiring them to say thank-you, below you will find suggestions on how we can help children truly feel thankful, and thus, ultimately understand Thanksgiving in a way that resonates for them.
- Share – Go around the dinner table at night and say out loud something you are each thankful for. You can also keep a gratitude journal with your child. Younger children can dictate to you something they are thankful for every day, while older children can draw pictures and begin to write in it themselves.
- Make a connection – For those who say blessings as a part of their daily routine, make the connection for children that, for example, every time we say a prayer before we eat, we are showing our appreciation and thankfulness for the food we have.
- Give tzedakah – Tzedakah is a righteous act of generosity. Encourage your child to save money over time, and let them pick a cause close to their heart to donate toward (e.g., if your child loves animals they can donate toys to an animal shelter).
- Model thankfulness – While it is natural for us to tell our children we love them, it is important to tell them what you appreciate about them and why. Recognize each child for their strengths and tell them how much you value their role in your family.
- Encourage generosity – Have children help pick out old clothes or toys to donate to other children in need, or bake together and bring it over to a local firehouse.
- Say no – Obviously we don’t want to deny our children the basics. However, if you say yes to everything, children won’t necessarily learn to value their belongings. We don’t always want them waiting around for the next best thing, but rather we want them to develop an appreciation for what they already have.
- Get them thinking about others – Include your child in the process of selecting a gift for a friend or family member. While they may have a difficult time taking on the perspective of someone else, try and engage them by talking about the person’s hobbies or interests.
- Demonstrate compassion – Encourage your child to make a card for a sick friend at school or give them a call to tell them they hope they feel better.
- Volunteer as a family – Check out the following website and sign up for age appropriate opportunities to volunteer together.
- Read together – Spend time at the library and find books that highlight the theme of appreciation and thankfulness. Below is a list of some ideas to get your started.
- Bagels from Benny by Aubrey Davis
- I’m Thankful by Terri-Sue Hill
- The Thankful Book by Todd Parr
Through the opportunities and experiences we provide for our children at home and school and the actions we model daily, we can help our little ones begin to internalize the concept of thankfulness, and ultimately create a culture of appreciation and generosity. Wishing you all a very happy and meaningful Thanksgiving .
By Rachel Schwartz, LSW, Early Childhood Program and Social Services Manager for JCC Chicago