“God made us such a beautiful world. Why do people put garbage all over it?” This question struck me right in the heart while driving down the highway, as it came from the mouth of my son Josh who was just five years old at the time. I replied, “Would you like to thank God for this beautiful world by helping to clean it up?” I’d barely gotten the words out when he yelled with excitement, “Yes! Can I?”
Gratitude and grace practices have long been a crucial part of my life. 15 years ago when I was suffering from intense anxiety, panic attacks, TMJ, and incessant catastrophizing, these practices transformed my life. They enabled me to see all the good in myself, my life, and others. They let me see how much impact we have on others through simple actions, how many blessings we receive each day, and how important it is to live each day with the intention of being a force of good.
Josh’s inquiry as we drove down the highway was evidence that he’d already assimilated the underlying ideals of gratitude and grace. Yet, in that moment I knew it was time for me to introduce him to the intentional practices of these values. So began a journey where I’ve witnessed the profound impact gratitude and grace practices can have on a child’s perspective and actions.
Here are 5 simple gratitude and grace practices we engage in together:
- Community Volunteering:
Since Josh wanted to thank God for our beautiful world, I did some investigating and learned that our town does an annual community clean-up. In 2015, just before his sixth birthday, we did our first clean-up together. Wearing protective gloves and filling several giant garbage bags, we spent a few hours cleaning up a local park. Josh rewarded himself with some time on the swings! And he’s requested that we make the clean-up an annual tradition. I wanted us to do regular volunteering together and discovered that a local food pantry allowed kids as young as five to come with family to do sorting and shelving. We began volunteering there a couple nights per month in October 2014, and it fast became one of Josh’s favorite activities. Before volunteering, we showed Josh the documentary, American Winter, which chronicles the impact of the recession on several formerly middle-class families. When my father asked Josh why he loves volunteering at the pantry, he said, “We watched this movie about families and kids who didn’t have jobs, houses, and food, and they had to go to the food pantry. So we go there to give people food if they don’t have any.”
- Bedtime Gratitude:
I used to practice my nightly gratitude alone, but in July 2014 Josh and I began practicing together as part of his bedtime routine. I started by asking him to think of three things he was thankful for that day. Initially, Josh had a hard time coming up with more than one thing. When he did, they were often material items like, “I’m thankful you bought me a toy today. I’m thankful I got a cool goodie bag at the party today.” A year and a half later, he rattles off 10 or more things he’s grateful for, often consisting of things like, “I’m thankful that I got to go to school today. I’m thankful I have a nice bed. I’m thankful I have a good house. I’m thankful I have a great mom and dad. I’m thankful I played with my cousins today. I’m thankful we have a good God.” Now, as soon as we lay down to go to sleep at night, he immediately asks me, “What are you thankful for today mommy?”
- Character-Building Reading:
The large majority of books that Josh and I read together are focused on being grateful and gracious. Our favorites include the “How Full is Your Bucket” books, High 5 for Character Becoming a Better You Series, and Dr. Seuss’s “The Sneetches and Other Stories.” I always ask Josh his thoughts during and after reading. He often makes connections from the books to situations he encounters at school, home, and elsewhere.
- Saying Thank You:
It’s so important to model and teach saying “Thank You.” I thank Josh for cleaning up his toys, taking his time to do his homework thoughtfully, and being kind to his teachers, friends, and family. My husband and I thank one another for simple kindnesses around the house. I also readily thank sales associates, restaurant servers, road workers, gas station attendants, and anyone who provides us with a service, so Josh sees saying thank you as a normal response. He almost always says “Thank You” to others without reminder. I especially love witnessing his now automatic “Thank You” wave to drivers who let us make a turn while driving!
- Finding Gratitude & Grace Through Struggles:
Seeking meaning in challenging experiences has been transformational for me. It’s allowed me to be grateful for my struggles and the resulting wisdom, and made me feel I can help others through their challenges. When Josh is sad, angry, or frustrated about something in his world, we talk about it once he calms down. I ask him what he’s learned and how he would use that knowledge if he faces something similar. When Josh sees someone else who is struggling and feels a sense of compassion for them, I ask him what he or we can do to help them. This brings a sense of gratitude for the empowerment to use resources to make a difference in our own or another’s life.
It is my greatest blessing to give my son the gifts that transformed my life. Josh is an amazingly thankful and gracious little first grader who makes me so proud every day. My hope is that he will take these expressions of gratitude and grace with him throughout his lifetime.