“Let’s go around the room and say something we’re thankful for,” says the teacher. “I’m thankful for apple pie!” says one child. “I’m glad my mommy bought me a new racing car,” says another. And so it continues, with each group member naming something they like having.
Teaching children to give thanks can seem simple. We just ask them what they appreciate having or who does things for them and they respond with a list. But genuine thanks-giving requires more than expressions of happiness because we possess things or enjoy spending time with certain people. It also means recognizing how our stuff, our relationships, and our behavior contribute to the well-being of our community.
When we teach children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, we are not just introducing them to a nice social convention. We are also encouraging them to acknowledge that they are not entirely independent. They contribute to and benefit interactions with others. Learning to say ‘thanks’ and mean it helps children grasp the concept of interdependence.
Group settings provide a great opportunity for practicing thanks-giving because the group serves as a micro-community of interdependent members. The trick is to offer children ways to give thanks that help them develop and express genuine appreciation for communal relations.
One approach is to invite kids to create thanks-giving equations. Provide each child with a sheet of paper and some crayons or markers. Ask them to draw pictures of things people have done to help their community be a good place to live. Then tape the images up in a long line and add ‘+’ signs between each sheet of paper. Put an ‘=’ sign at the end of the image row, followed by a sign that says ‘community’. Finish with a group cheer giving thanks for the many ways people are building community in your area.
You might also set up a thanks-giving watch. Tell children that you think they are all doing unacknowledged things that contribute to your group’s well-being. Ask them to “be on the lookout” for positive actions, such as one child helping another, a kid choosing to keep calm when a classmate gets upset with them, children picking up toys without complaining, or someone encouraging a child who is struggling. When they see or hear such actions, they draw a happy face on a whiteboard/chalkboard (or poster paper) with the word “thanks!” underneath. At the end of the group meeting, notice how many faces are on the board and invite children to share some of their observations.
A third idea is to create a ‘thanks-giving’ campaign. Prepare (or purchase) a set of blank notecards with ‘thanks’ printed on the front. Invite children to name people they appreciate because their actions help make the world a better place. Suggest that they express their thanks directly to those individuals or groups by writing or drawing a thank you message. Encourage them to be specific about the actions and attitudes they appreciate. Set a group goal of identifying and thanking 50 or 100 people by a certain date. Mail, hand-deliver, or photograph the cards and post on social media.