Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving

Trapped between the candy-filled excitement of Halloween and the magic of the winter holidays, Thanksgiving doesn’t always get the attention it deserves from children. And that’s a shame, because Thanksgiving is one of the most important days in American culture.

Fortunately, teaching children the meaning of Thanksgiving isn’t difficult, and brings opportunities to develop our children’s ability to appreciate personal blessings.


Start with the Story

To understand Thanksgiving, children need to know the story of the early Pilgrims. A quick trip to the local library will reward you with age-appropriate books or videos about Thanksgiving, or you can sit down together at the computer and explore the story online.


Make the story exciting—which is easy, because it is. Explain how the Pilgrims fled to the New World to escape religious oppression, and the terrible winter they experienced during their first year in their new home. Without the help of the local Wanpanoag tribe, the Pilgrims would not have survived. This a great opportunity to talk about helping others.


Continue the story by telling your little ones how the Native Americans taught the Pilgrims what crops to plant and what animals to hunt, and that the first Thanksgiving was held in the fall of 1621, with both peoples sitting down and eating together in friendship.


Start a Thankful Tradition

Start your own Thanksgiving tradition with a Box of Thanks. Throughout the year, children and adults alike put the notes into the box (young children, of course, will need help) describing why they’re thankful. On Thanksgiving Day, the box is opened and all the notes are read.


Remind children it’s possible to be thankful for something or someone even when times get tough. For instance, you might be thankful for your children even if they squabbled all day. Being thankful during the tougher moments of life is an important skill, and one you can shape with your own additions to the Box of Thanks.


A big part of the meaning of Thanksgiving is sharing our good fortune with others, as the Native Americans shared with the Pilgrims. Encourage children to think of ways to share with others, whether through charities or within the family. Food drives are an excellent choice, as is volunteering at elder hospices or other charities.


One of the great strengths of Thanksgiving is it transcends religions and cultural differences. A religious family can emphasize the important of thanking God, while more secular families can focus on simply being thankful. Either way, you’re fostering feelings of gratitude in your children and an appreciation for the people and things in their lives. And that, really, is the central meaning of Thanksgiving.

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