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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Teaching Gratitude this Holiday Season -- And All Year Long

December 14, 2012

By Claire McCarthy

Boston Children's Hospital

For most children, the holidays are, well, about presents. It's understandable; it was certainly my favorite part of the holidays when I was growing up. But sometimes expectations can get out of hand. And often parents find themselves wondering why their children aren't a bit more grateful for what they have.

Gratitude is important. And not just because it's a good social grace to have. It's also essential for overall happiness. When we're grateful, we understand that there are still good things in our lives even when things don't work out the way we'd hoped (like when we don't get that cool toy or that cool job). If we don't understand and practice gratitude, we will always feel like there is more we should have, no matter what we have already.

Gratitude has to be taught — and it takes practice. This holiday season, why don't you make it part of your family's routine and culture? Here are some suggestions to help:

  • When buying gifts, buy some for a shelter or a toy drive. Let your child help pick them out and deliver them.
  • Take your child holiday grocery shopping. Buy extra food. Bring your child with you when you take it to the food pantry.
  • Before the holidays, go through old toys and clothes to "make room" for new things. Give away whatever you can to shelters and other charities. Involve your child in all of this, too.
  • With your child, make a list of all the people who help him or are special to him. Find ways to acknowledge them during the holidays. For example, bake cookies together to give away.
  • Make sure that your child always says "please" and "thank you." It's a little thing, but it makes a difference.
  • Always have your child write thank-you notes (or draw thank-you pictures, if they can't write yet) for presents they get.
  • Give children chores to do, starting when they are small. It helps them understand that families involve work — and helps them to be more grateful for the work that other people do for them around the house.
  • Create a daily ritual of gratitude. If you are part of a faith tradition, consider having nightly prayers. And make sure that one part of those prayers involves listing some things you are grateful for. If you're not part of a faith tradition, try something like what my friend Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson does with her children: Every day each person in the family talks about their "BPOD," or Best Part of Day. The very act of stopping to think of what your BPOD is helps to teach gratitude.
  • Make sure you talk about what you are grateful for as well. As with all things, kids pay more attention to what we do than what we say.

You may just find that as you teach your child gratitude, you become more grateful yourself. This is a wonderful way to not only bring your child happiness in life, but also make your life happier.

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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.

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