Build Gratitude With a Thankful Jar

It’s the holiday season and our kids are going hog-wild with greed. They’re ogling at gifts in stores and online, begging, whining, and making Things I Want lists for Santa. With all the excesses of Christmas, kids can start to become little monsters professing their wants over and over, louder and louder. They wanna make sure they get what’s coming to them.

  • “I want a new bike!”
  • “I want a remote-controlled robot dog!”
  • “I want a snow cone machine like friggin’ Deborah!”
  • “I want an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time!”

At no other time of year would parents deal with these constant material demands. This unbridled greed reaches a fever pitch on Christmas morning. Resulting in tantrums and despair when certain expected gifts are not found under the tree. After a week of decompression, we send them back to school, regain our composure, and wince at the Discover Card bill.

So how best to battle this pattern of feverish acquisition? Even in this season of getting, there are sneaky ways to encourage reflection and selflessness. As an elementary teacher, I hatched a way to get into kids’ heads and cultivate a bit of Christmas time gratitude. It works. Did it for years. Your kids will still want, but will become softer around the edges by taking note of great things, people, and experiences in their lives. Best of all, this method will take you about 2 minutes a week. That and a bag of marbles.

The Thankful Jar

Find yourself an old pickle, spaghetti, applesauce, or whatever jar. Clean it up. Put a cute little sign on it that reads “The Thankful Jar”. Maybe tie a festive bow around it. Write this sentence frame nice-n-big on a piece of thick paper:

I am thankful for ____________ Because ____________.

Set this all up in a spot highly visible where your family mostly hangs, like the living room or kitchen. Tuck the bag of marbles away. Out of sight but near the jar.

Simple Instructions:

Each time a member of your family uses the sentence frame to say something they’re thankful for, pop a marble in the jar. That’s it.

Not everything we’re grateful for is deep and poetic. Don’t force your kids to profess their gratefulness for the air they breathe, grandma’s health, the whales in the ocean, and so on. Those are some abstract things for little ones to grasp, let alone be thankful for. Be your kids’ example by being thankful for what is happening right then and there. Understandable things. The little things like a good meatball sub on a rainy day. Keep it real.

Proclaim boldly:

“I am thankful for my coffee and this bagel because they’re going to get me caffeinated, full, and cheerful for yet another day at work.”
Then drop a marble in the jar.
“I’m thankful that my whole family is home tonight because I haven’t seen them all day.”
Another marble goes in.

“I’m thankful our car has heated seats because they really relieve my lower back tension.”
Clink! Another marble.

You do not need to explain what you’re up to ahead of time. Just start doing it. The questions will roll in.

Kids: “What are you doing”
You: “I’m putting a marble in this jar every time someone around here is thankful for something.”
Kids: “What happens when it’s full?”
You: “Something great will happen.”
Kids: “Like what?”
You: “We’ll see.”
Kids: “Can we try?”
You: “Yes! The jar will fill even faster. And then the great thing will be for all of us!”

See how that works? Your kids will initially start coming up with stuff just to fill the jar. Help them use the sentence frame each time. The “because” part is very important BECAUSE it causes your child to truly reflect. After a couple days, they will start to notice all the good things that make life worth living. You will notice them bubbling up with gratitude in spite of their festering holiday greed. It shows itself in little ways, like helping you clean up after dinner or hugging their sibling or the cat for seemingly no reason.

They will be suddenly grateful that their friend came back to school after having the flu for three days. They will be grateful that mom got blueberry muffins from Costco. They will be grateful that it’s Saturday and they get to hang out with dad on the couch.

As the grown person, keep modeling better and better things to be grateful for throughout the month.

“I am thankful for this sunny day because I can go for a walk and not get wet.”

“I am thankful that my kids have such good teachers this year because they come home happy and smarter every day.”

“I am thankful that your grandparents are flying to town for Christmas this year because I don’t get to see them as often as I’d like.”

Having done this in the 3rd-grade classroom, I can tell you that kids get more thoughtful and insightful upon each day of purposeful reflection and gratitude. I usually made this a morning activity, because we can’t be professing our thankfulness all day; there’s work to get done. I always wrote down the best, funniest, most creative, and kindest ones on little slips of paper and hung them up all around the jar. I’d suggest doing this to inspire and motivate your kids. Write down the grown folks’ best ones too. Let your guests participate when they’re around, like that kid down the street, or the mailman (if he’s in your living room for some reason).

What happens when the jar is full? That’s up to you. Just make it a surprise and an actual experience, not more stuff. So go sledding, to a movie, on a family hike, out to dinner and ice cream. Make it something that celebrates how grateful you became together. Be thankful for the experience and the cycle of gratefulness continues.

Remember: This is something you can start doing today. Or in two days after Amazon Prime delivers this marble jar. This all may sound too simple. Too easy. Or just too mushy and soft-headed to work. But try it out. Invest the handful of marbles and minutes this December. You’ll have more grateful kids.

Mostly Team Effort

Mostly Team Efforts are collaborative articles that often bounce between experts, our own Chris Sullivan, questions from parents (ourselves, or friends of ours), and our advisors. But we love your questions and suggestions, so please let us know what you think.

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