Adopting an attitude of gratitude

Have you ever noticed that Thanksgiving is the only holiday that actually tells us how it should be celebrated? Giving thanks! Unfortunately, all too often, the only thanks vocalized is, “Thank goodness it’s over!”

Through the years, Thanksgiving has become an excuse for all manner of overindulgence. Consequently, it is not surprising to hear reports of a holiday characterized by out-of-control children, marital discord, alcohol-related conflict or accidents, and disastrous family gatherings.

H.U. Westermayer observed that the Pilgrims built seven times more coffins than cabins. He notes that, “No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of thanksgiving.” Here, the word “impoverished” refers to the Pilgrim’s inability to satisfy even their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. Currently, the tendency is to consider ourselves impoverished if we do not have the newest version smartphone, an ultra-wide screen television, and an individual-serving coffee maker. Considering this shift, one might be inclined to conclude that we are confused about what constitutes a necessity, have lost perspective on what it means to be impoverished, and forgotten what being thankful looks like.

However, this need not be the case. We can do it differently. We can choose to leave our children a legacy of thankfulness by creating new traditions designed to create a feast for the spirit rather than merely one for the palate. We can rediscover this national holiday and reclaim it as the word of action that it actually is — Thanksgiving! Here are few things to keep in mind this turkey day:

Set the stage. Spend the weeks leading up to this holiday refamiliarizing your family with the story of the first Thanksgiving. Maybe the theatrical members of your family would like to recreate the experience for everyone on Thanksgiving Day. Spend time contemplating and discussing the meaning of the word “thanksgiving.” Invite everyone participating in your celebration to bring one interesting fact about Thanksgiving to share. You might also encourage them to come prepared to share a favorite Thanksgiving memory.

Embrace realistic expectations. Avoid the “Extreme Holiday Makeover” syndrome. Unlike the hosts of these shows, most of us do not have 50 to 100 people to help us prepare Thanksgiving dinner. Rather than attempting to replicate an entire magazine layout menu for the perfect Thanksgiving, just try one or two new dishes. Any recipe looks simple when someone else does all the preparation. Remember that it is not what you have on your table, but who you have around it that makes the difference.

Plan ahead and generate the giving. Make a list of everything that goes into preparing for Thanksgiving and let each family member, as well as invited guest, choose what they will be responsible for providing. It could be preparing a favorite dish, arranging and setting the table, decorating the house, supplying holiday music, or supervising the younger children in their tasks.

Collect and have materials ready for making holiday items. A centerpiece may involve filling a basket with colorful leaves, acorns, or pinecones (real or cut from construction paper). Older kids may use wooden mallets to pound the color from leaves onto pieces of muslin for a tablecloth, placemats, or napkins.

Find ways for your kids to assist in the preparation of Thanksgiving dinner. Sure it may take longer, but remember you are not just cooking a meal, you are making memories. Involve everyone in the giving. People of every age enjoy the feeling that comes from making a contribution.

Testify to the thanks. Let everyone know ahead of time that each person will be asked to share at least one reason he is thankful before partaking of Thanksgiving dinner. Provide a list of suggested themes — something in nature, something about family, something he has learned, an ability he has, an experience, or an activity he enjoys. These may be spoken or written on slips of paper and read by one of the youngest readers. It might be fun to try to match the thanks with the person who wrote it.

Transform thanks into giving. Take some time during or after dinner to explore how the thanks expressed could be taken beyond words and put into action. The person who is thankful he learned to read could volunteer to read to patients in the children’s hospital. The person who is thankful for the flowers in her garden could collect seeds to share with neighbors. The person who is thankful she can sing or play an instrument could volunteer to perform at the local retirement community. The person who is thankful she can knit or crochet could make caps to donate for cancer patients. The possibilities are endless.

Fortunately, Thanksgiving is not exclusive to any particular group and does not have to be restricted to a specific day. We may discover that the more thankful we become, the more we find to be thankful for. As parents, it is our responsibility to help our children make the connection between thanks and giving. By adopting a grateful attitude, we acknowledge that it is not enough just to say we are thankful, we need to live it.

Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman is a resident of Lexington, Kentucky. She has degrees in child development, family studies, and marriage and family therapy. She spent 15 years in various agencies and clinics as a family therapist and parent educator. She has written extensively on the topic of parenting. After six years as arts facilitator for the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, she chose to return to her favorite place of employment — home. Her son, Douglas, 24, is now based in New York City when he is not on the road performing. He is an actor, singer, musician, dancer, writer, and visual artist. Joseph, 14, is a freshman theatre major at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts who also sings, dances, plays piano, and creates visual art.