I am probably the last person to claim to have even a sliver of authority on the subject of Thanksgiving.
Growing up as a child of immigrants, Thanksgiving was just one of those traditions we didn’t fully embrace. As a kid, I loved the fact that we got an entire week off of school — but my family took that opportunity to road trip to Mexico to visit our extended family. Our Thanksgiving dinner usually consisted of street tacos, elotes callejeros (street corn), or a delicious dish one of my abuelitas would make.
As we got older and had less time off, we made a few attempts to get into the spirit of Thanksgiving. My mom made a full-on dinner — complete with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy — only to discover that we didn’t really love it. Despite our disappointment with the food, one thing we did appreciate about this all-American holiday was the idea of gratitude. My dad was especially huge on this. The older we got, the more he pushed us to verbally express the many things we were thankful for, but not just at Thanksgiving. He asked us to do it all of the time — at our nightly family dinner, at the end of the week, and on special occasions like birthdays and holidays.
I wasn’t always thrilled about this, especially when I was in my angsty teen years. It seemed silly/useless/boring to have to name each blessing out loud as if my parents had not already guessed that I was thankful for my family, my friends, and my own room (once I finally got one). But as I matured (and especially now when I look back), I realized my parents were helping me cultivate a great life skill.
For Catholics, gratitude is everything. The word “Eucharist” in Greek actually means “thanksgiving,” and so links our communion with God through the body and blood of Christ to the act of giving thanks. This means that it is essential to the Christian identity that we embrace a culture of gratitude — not just on Thanksgiving, but every day.
Below are some practices your family can adopt in order to help your teens express their gratitude on a regular basis:
If your family has dinner together most evenings, or at least once or twice a week, encourage each other to give high-fives to members of the family (or other dinner guests) they are grateful for that day. Maybe dad can thank one of the kids for helping prep dinner, one sibling can high-five the other for their help on a hard math problem, or mom can high-five grandma and grandpa for coming over that night. Big or small, motivating everyone to high-five at least one other person will help your teens reflect on the many ways they can be grateful on any given day.
Weekly: Thanks by the Numbers
If your family members have crazy busy weekday schedules and are more Sunday get-together people, make time before or after Mass to reflect on what caused a feeling of gratitude in your heart over the past week. Make a game out of it by taking as many popsicle sticks as there are family members and numbering each one (e.g., if there are seven family members, number the sticks one through seven). Each family member draws a stick and then is challenged to name as many things they are grateful for as the number they drew. (Of course, if they can’t name that many or have more, it’s OK! Just have fun!)
Monthly: A Eucharistic Thanks
As you get into the habit of expressing gratitude on a more regular basis, keep track of the daily and weekly blessings that are named. Dedicate one day of the month (like the last Saturday or Sunday) to get together and reflect on the things you were thankful for in the past month. Then, have each family member pick one that stands out the most. Have them write it down and bring it as an offering of thanks to God by going to Mass as a family on the last day of the month. If the last day of the month is a Sunday, go either the day before or the day after. If you can’t make daily Mass as a family, visit the adoration chapel together and spend 15 minutes in a prayer of thanks before the Eucharist.
Yearly/Special Occasions: Big Thanks
On birthdays, flip the script and challenge the members of the family to come up with as many things to be grateful as the number of years the birthday person is turning. (E.g., if it’s big brother’s 18th birthday, the family members collectively come up with 18 reasons they are grateful for him.) Feel free to get creative and put them together in a song the family performs or as an artistic poster you all decorate together.
On holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, etc., challenge each family member to say thanks for one blessing in each of these categories: spiritual (like a grace received in prayer or a retreat that bore a lot of fruit), social (like a new friend they’ve made or a trip they took), academic or professional (like a really great teacher or a fulfilling work project), and a personal challenge they learned from (like a difficult science class or a tough new boss). Take turns sharing stories about why each one has made you grateful and enjoy seeing gratitude grow right before your eyes.