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Keeping the "Thanks" in Thanksgiving

Focusing on gratitude on a day reserved for feasting.

Experts say art can help children reflect on the things they are grateful for during the Thanksgiving holiday.

Experts say art can help children reflect on the things they are grateful for during the Thanksgiving holiday. Photo by Marilyn Campbell.

"Pilgrims," said James, 5, as his mother helped him fasten his helmet for a hockey lesson at the Cabin John Ice Rink near Potomac. "Turkey and pie," said his 6-year-old classmate Aiden. Both boys were responding to a question about the meaning of Thanksgiving.

Suzanne Abell, the mother of one of the boys, grimaced before chiming in, "It is also about giving thanks and showing gratitude for the things that you have."

While Thanksgiving is a holiday associated with elaborate meals shared with family and friends, the part of the holiday that focuses on appreciation can get lost, especially on young children, say counseling and human development experts. Starting conversations that generate ideas about the things one is grateful for is challenging, so creating art that illustrates the things that matter most in one’s life is an ideal place to start, say experts.

"Thanksgiving is a very complicated thing to explain to children because we were the invaders," said Potomac psychologist Linda Berg-Cross, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Howard University. "When your riches, or how you’ve gotten what you’ve gotten, has been at other people’s expense, it is not easy to explain."

Linda Gulyn, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Marymount University in Arlington, said developing family traditions is a good starting point for discussions on gratitude. "Thanksgiving is ideally suited for traditions," she said. "I think it is good for children to have a link to their past and think about and reflect on their own history and the uniqueness of their family."

Gulyn, who lives in Arlington, has experienced this with her own children. "One day one of my sons asked me where our family was from," she said. "It gave me a moment to reflect on the hardship and sacrifices that my grandparents, who came from Italy and Ireland in the early 20th century without any education, made so that we could have a better life in many ways. Any way that children can reflect on hardship and sacrifice is awesome and helps them experience gratitude."

As families begin to inventory the things they are grateful for, Berg-Cross suggests creating tangible expressions of gratitude that can be cherished for years to come. "One thing that people can do that is nice is make a beautiful deck of cards, each with something to be grateful for written on it," she said. "On Thanksgiving you can pass them around. Everyone get two cards and has to explain why they are grateful for that particular thing." Topics can range from a favorite teacher, type of music or sport to a favorite store, friend or food.

Lauren Cook, head of the Visuals Arts Department at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac agrees that art can be a gentle, but fun conduit to conversations about gratitude. "One of the things that art helps with is to see through other people’s eyes," she said. "It helps us look beyond ourselves and connect with the larger community."

Cook says St. Andrew’s students completed created collage projects that encouraged them to take inventory of the people in their lives for whom they are thankful. "It starts out with themselves, their family and friends, the school and their community."

Chantilly-based artist Judy Gordon offers other ideas. "Help your children draw and paint a turkey and write one thing they are thankful for on each feather."

Gordon also suggests making gratitude bags. "Take scraps of fabric and create small, Thanksgiving-themed bags. Give each family member or guest a pen and a card to write down one thing they are grateful for and place it in the bag. Use the cards to start a dialogue on gratitude."

Kathryn Horn Coneway, of Art at the Center, located in Mount Vernon, said, "I am a big believer in cards. You can make creative place cards. You can send out thank you cards to grandparents or other relatives and friends who’ve come to visit."