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Why Volunteering on Thanksgiving Isn’t Enough for Your Tweens

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Girl at food drive

Every year before Thanksgiving, blogs post articles about the importance of teaching teens gratitude. Inevitably, the solution seems to be taking the family to volunteer at a homeless shelter or conducting a canned food drive.

While I think volunteering is a crucial and loving component of our society, there is something about the one-time visit at the holidays that feels like we’re using other people’s bad circumstances as an analgesic to our gluttony before we feast on decadent meals and begin the midnight shopping sprees on Black Friday.

Teaching tweens gratitude shouldn’t be just a once a year experience. It’s a long and repetitive process. It won’t “stick” in kids’ minds with just an annual holiday volunteer commitment, or an occasional speech about “how lucky we are.”

Of course, it is important for older kids to understand that while they may be wishing for wireless Beats headphones, other families are wishing for warm meals, soft beds, or safe havens. But this lesson is isolated and ineffective without a foundation of gratitude grounded in smaller moments throughout the year.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, "As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives." Grand gestures are wonderful! But it is through the small, daily and weekly routines of kindness and flexibility that we deepen our capacity for gratitude.

Here are some habit builders that will help you cultivate a culture of gratitude in your house year round:

Gratitude Jar: Keep an empty mason jar on the kitchen counter next to a pencil and slips of blank paper. Encourage your kids to write down the small things they’re thankful for as they occur, then read them at the end of each month over a favorite dinner.

High and Low: Play this game at the start of your family meals. Each person around the table gets a turn to say what the “high” of their day was, and the “low” of their day. For older kids who scoff at this sort of thing, try calling it “Happies and Crappies.” Sometimes a small language change makes a big difference in your credibility.

Break a Habit: Your child forgot his lunch on the kitchen counter. You know from Facebook memes and parenting experts that you are not supposed to bail him out so that he can learn natural consequences. But some days are just hard. And it is nice to be treated nicely, even if you might not have earned it that day. From time to time, break your own rules to show your kids that being supportive is more important than being right.

Talk the Talk: Language is a key component of gratitude. It’s the reason thank you notes are (were) such a big deal to parents. It’s one thing to feel thankful for something, but if you don’t express that to someone, it still seems selfish. Show your kids the words to use to express gratitude. Be sure they hear you say to the grocery store cashier, “Thanks so much for pulling me over to your line!” Point out the nice acts you see other people every day: “Did you see that guy hold the door at Starbucks? He ushered in about eight people!” And of course, let your kids know often the small things they do for which you are grateful. It’s easy to get caught up in negatives: messy rooms, bad grades and sullen attitudes can leave you feeling…ungrateful. But reminding your kids and yourself of a small thing every few days that you appreciate, “That was nice of you to bring me my water” or, “Thanks for moving your papers off the table” will reframe your perspective and inspire more good behavior.

Adopt a Catchphrase: When I was growing up, my family would often say, “Be happy about the things you have, not sad about the things you don’t.” Used sparingly, a catch phrase can be grounding when things are otherwise upsetting. Even as an adult, I still fall victim to materialism when I walk through the mall. The pull of newer, flashier stuff is strong. My family catch phrase still helps me here.

This Thanksgiving, begin your family’s year-long approach to gratitude and with small, repetitive thoughts and gestures, together you will have cultivated your family culture of genuine thankfulness.

Michelle Icard is the author of Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years. Learn more about her work with middle schoolers and their parents at

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