One Easy Way to Bring Meaning and Warmth to Thanksgiving

I am always looking for ways to enrich holidays with more meaning and love. Last year we were on our own for Thanksgiving.  We had moved to D.C. just a few months before, and we were in-between visits to Enrico’s  family and my family.

The Thanksgiving holiday needed some more oomph, so I came up with these placemats that my daughters (then seven and nine years old) helped me write up and place on the table.  Before we sat down, we all had to go around and write on each person’s placemat (which were made of simple construction paper).

On Virginia’s placemat, for example, we each wrote something that we loved about her, something that made us thankful that she is alive.  Mark was only three at the time, so he dictated his answers, and Luke, just one year, was excused from praising, but he received plenty of praise (mainly for being cute).

Feeling Thankful is a Secret Path to Feeling Joy

Gratitude, and how it can boost our happiness, has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project says that:

Gratitude is a key element for a happy life. People who cultivate gratitude get a boost in happiness and optimism, feel more connected to other people, are better-liked and have more friends, are more likely to help others — they even sleep better and have fewer headaches.

Gratitude is also a way to circumvent fear, the fear that if we allow ourselves to experience joy we will be setting ourselves up for disappointment. We’re afraid that the good things we have will be taken away from us, that the feeling of joy won’t last, or that the transition into disappointment will be too difficult, says Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, a book that I am loving reading right now.  But when we “lean into the fear and are grateful for what we have in that precious moment,” we can feel real joy, says Brown.

Being grateful is not easy.  I identify with Gretchen Rubin when she says, “I find it challenging to cultivate a grateful frame of mind. … I get preoccupied with petty complaints and minor irritations, and forget just how much happiness I already have.”

Holidays are perfect moments to coax ourselves into a moment of gratitude, and I love that these placemats can easily be saved and remembered years later.

In Writing, in Giving Feedback, in Praising: Be Specific

I liked the idea of tying our Thanksgiving gratitude to each person in our family, instead of a more general gratefulness prompt.  It’s too easy for a child to respond to a general question with a general answer like, “I’m thankful for my mommy, my daddy, my sister, and my brothers.”

Just as with thank you notes or any other kind of writing, kids might need coaching at first.  The word “nice” was off-limits in our family, for example, because it made it too easy to say, “I am thankful for Mark because he is nice to me. Sometimes.”

So when Virginia said she was thankful to Sofia for “playing with her,” I asked, “What does she play with you?”  When Mark was thankful that Mama “takes care of me,” the girls asked him “how” she takes care of me?  Dada plays with you, yes, but what is your favorite game that he plays?  What is your favorite part of the game?

Of course not every answer is touching.  Some are silly.  I still chuckle at one of those “kids say the funniest things” answers to the question, Why did God make mothers? “Mom is the only one who knows where the scotch tape is.”

Inter-dependence, not Independence, is the Goal

William Jennings Bryan said, “On Thanksgiving Day we acknowledge our dependence.”  In the age of supermarkets, indoor plumbing, and 24-hour wifi, we are pretty far removed from nature and how we are still, just like the Pilgrims, dependent on the earth for food, clean water, and safe shelter.

Being grateful for our family members helps highlight how dependent we also are on each other.  As parents we depend on children for laughter, opening our hearts, a purpose in life.  Of course children depend on their parents for survival, but they also depend on their siblings for companionship, fun, and, solidarity.

Dependence is often looked upon negatively in this land of rugged individualism (and perhaps the dysfunctional version called ‘co-dependence’ helped color it darkly), but in fact, the interconnectedness of humans is beautiful and good.

I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Ken Ginsburg that my goal should not be to raise my children into independent adults, but to create an interdependent family.  I want my children and grandchildren to live close to me, to come over for dinner all the time, to call me with questions, to involve me in their lives until the day I die.

One of the trickiest tasks, therefore, for me as a parent is to create an environment and a family dynamic that will encourage closeness.  Making holidays satisfying and memorable, and fostering an atmosphere of love and acceptance, is one way I hope to increase my chances.

Want to start your own Thanksgiving ritual?  I love these other ideas at Dr. Laura Markham’s Aha Parenting.

And, if you’re cooking, you might remember my four favorite make-ahead Thanksgiving dishes and more ways to simplify Thanksgiving meal preparation.

With gratitude for you,

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  • Erin November 16, 2012, 11:40 am

    How thankful am I to have found your blog! I appreciate your approach to life and family. There is just so much stuff out there. In an effort to keep things simple, I truthfully don’t dial in very much these days to Internet, TV, etc. However, I LOVE your blog and am always uplifted after I read it. My family is benefiting greatly too:) Thank you for sharing everything from your tips, budget sheets, fun ideas , and mostly your heart. My three little ones are all still under four, but I am going to find a special way to incorporate these Thankful Placemats into our holiday this year.
    Blessings to you and yours.

    • Amy November 16, 2012, 10:20 pm

      Dear Erin,

      I so appreciate your reaching out to me and telling me how this blog has made a difference. It means a lot. I know what you mean about not dialing in very much, and because of that, I am even more honored that you chose to spend some of your time here.

      I’m glad that the Thanksgiving placemats seemed like a good idea. We’ll do it again this year, but maybe before our friends come over. It’s an intimate ritual that needs just the right atmosphere.

      Thank you for writing to me, Erin,

  • Meagan Francis November 15, 2012, 9:30 pm

    I love this, Amy! What a simple but beautiful way to reflect on our blessings.

  • Alison @ L is for Latte November 15, 2012, 12:46 pm

    Yay–a post from Amy! re: Thanksgiving gratitude. We started a Thanksgiving tradition several years ago where everyone writes down what they are thankful for that year, and we place the notes in the box. It is so fun to read them from year to year.

    • Amy November 15, 2012, 1:32 pm

      Hi Alison,

      It’s great to hear from you too! I’m curious about your ritual. Do you read the ones from the current year, or do you save them (almost like a time capsule) to read the following year? Either way, it sounds wonderful.


      • Alison @ L is for Latte November 15, 2012, 2:56 pm

        Both. The box is getting quite full! Of course, we also have the handwritten place cards and menus by the Little Supervisor, the “hand” turkeys, and other holiday papercrafts. :)

        • Amy November 15, 2012, 11:21 pm

          That’s great, Alison. I too love saving those adorable preschool crafts to hang up in later years. It’s so good of you to save all this stuff!