From “Gimmie” to Grateful: Family Travel, Raising Thankful Kids & How to Teach Gratitude

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Raising thankful kids isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. In fact, I’m reassessing gratitude for myself as well. That said, family travel offers several opportunities on how to teach gratitude.

Fi eating ice cream in a van sumatra, indonesia — An Epic Education From "Gimmie" to Grateful: Raising Thankful Kids

From “Gimmie” to Grateful: Raising Thankful Kids

Practicing gratitude is sounds easy, but it takes work just like anything else. Here is a little story on what we’re doing to raise thankful kids and how that affects our own behavior.

From Gimmie to Grateful Family Travel, Raising Thankful Kids & How to Teach Gratitude PIN 1

I turned 30 years old on September 11th. Yes, on that September 11th, in 2001, when the World Trade Center was attacked. This kickstarted an early mid-life crisis that was already bubbling in my psyche. For years afterward, my birthday loomed like a stormcloud on the horizon.

In fact, every birthday leading up to my fortieth seemed gloomier and more ominous than the last. At first, it was because of that specific tragedy. Then later more because of what I considered a more abstract tragedy: getting older.

Every birthday leading up to my fortieth seemed gloomier and more ominous than the last. At first, it was because of that specific tragedy. Then later more because of what I considered a more abstract tragedy: getting older.

By 39 years and 11 months, I was convinced that life was over. All fun, adventure, and discovery would exit my life by the time that the last candle blew out.

It took a surprise birthday party — and a complete and utter surprise it was, by the way (thanks, Keiko & Nic) — to pull me out of that anxious and depressive spiral. It helped me realize just how fortunate my dumb little life had been so far.

Until then, I had only looked at what I thought I lacked or was losing (money, excitement, youth). I didn’t look at what I already had and was gaining (good friends, health, and wisdom….well two out of three ain’t bad).

My First Midlife Turnaround: Raising Thankful Kids

From "Gimmie" to Grateful: Family Travel, Raising Thankful Kids & How to Teach Gratitude 6th birthday in Merida Yucatan Mexico

This was a real turning point for me, and one that I wasn’t expecting. Suddenly, birthdays were celebrations again — no fanfare or grand parties, but truly happy days. They no longer represented the march to banality and death. Instead, they became a moment to reflect on how much I had to be grateful for.

If you had told me when I was a teenager that I would be spending my 43rd birthday making banana spring rolls in Vietnam, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you told me I’d celebrate my 44th and 45th in Valencia, Spain, with my Spanish speaking children, I’d have thought you were crazy. Now I’ve celebrated my 46th birthday in Merida, Mexico, after some amazing adventures in San Miguel de Allende, and I’ve stopped counting.

Teaching Gratitude

Gratitude is not a once-a-year activity. Being thankful and practicing gratitude is something that Keiko and I have wanted our family to consider on a regular basis. Raising thankful kids is a worthwhile goal. Yet it can be easy to forget what’s gone right in life sometimes.

Whether you live in Tokyo, Atlanta, Bogota, Barcelona or Delhi, it’s easy to lose perspective. And for young people like my kids, I’ve realized that the act of gratitude doesn’t ooze into their habits by osmosis or by me merely modeling the behavior.

Thankfulness must be taught. And modeled.

We have seen serious poverty in our travels, and we have also seen incredible wealth. I’ve learned a lot since we started traveling. But one of the biggest lessons I’ve taken away from traveling is just how fortunate my family and I are. Not only because we travel so much, but because we travel at all. Because we have the option to travel. And because we have the health and means to even consider it.

Don’t forget that. If can even consider traveling with kids, you are one of a very privileged few.

We have made many, many sacrifices to lead the life we lead now. We still struggle with money and we still count every penny. And we deny our kids (and ourselves) of many of the things that our peers have. That said, by world standards, we are enormously privileged.

That said, by world standards, we are enormously privileged.

From "Gimmie" to Grateful: Raising Thankful Kids banana woman in Hue, Vietnam Poverty

The Company You Keep: Raising Thankful Kids

The kids don’t always see it that way. Whether it’s ice cream, Youtube, game time on devices or visiting the home of a new friend, our kids possibly complained more in the first few years of travel about not having “enough.” They griped more than during our middle-class existence in Tokyo.

I can hardly blame them. Despite our travels in developing countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, we maintained that middle-class lifestyle. Actually, we even bumped it up a notch, which was easy in Southeast Asia.

Japan is awesome, and it’s not as expensive as people think it is. That said, it’s still tough raising a family of four there with average desk jobs: apartments are small, and meals at nice restaurants were pricey and rarely spontaneous for us.

Then we moved to Malaysia. We had a car, a nice apartment with a pool, a juicer and a beautiful view of the sea. All of this for just a fraction of our old income. We still watched what we spent on food in Malaysia, but we ate quite well.

In contrast, our kids played soccer and attended poetry clubs with international school students. The parents of these kids made enough money to pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and take luxury vacations to nearby Southeast Asian islands.

Penang is a great place to explore with kids. But in a blessing-and-a-curse kind of way, the island where we’ve spent so much time was drastically different than much of Southeast Asia. Part developing-world, part Miami Beach, Penang is a playground for rich Malaysians. Struggling pedicabs and Porsche SUVs share the road, and seemingly everyone walks around texting and gaming on the latest Samsung Galaxy device.

The Setup: Raising Thankful Kids

In other words, we set the kids up for conflict. We told them: “be happy with less.” Then we placed them into social groups with kids who had so much more.

The same thing happened when we moved to Spain. By a (somewhat happy) accident, we enrolled our kids in two respected schools. One of those schools is where the children of Valencia’s wealthiest go. All the kids had the latest iPhones. They went skiing every winter and spent the month of August in their summer beach house.

Our kids saw this, and so they wanted it too. They started expecting more at home and envied more of what they saw people flaunting around them.

Life is partially about learning to deal with haves and have-nots, and when you’re traveling through small Indonesian villages where people have so little and hear your child complain that it’s “not fair” that they can’t have an ice cream, you know it’s time for a change in direction.

Don’t get me wrong: our kids aren’t bitter little dictators who whip servants if their grapes aren’t properly peeled. They’re actually quite kind and generous with others (but not with each other, but that’s a sibling thing and another topic entirely). But Keiko and I felt that despite our efforts to model the attitude of gratefulness, the kids still weren’t properly recognizing what they had, what people did for them, or what a fortunate and fairly privileged life they were leading.

Raising Thankful Kids: Our Ritual

So we instituted a small daily ritual: a moment of gratitude before bed. The time changes — sometimes it’s before a meal or before bedtime — but the act is the same. We sit with together and recall one thing that we were grateful for that day.

That’s it.

We encourage them to think of something related to that particular day or the day before, but it could be something more abstract or broader in scope, just as long as they can expand on it and explain why it’s come to their mind. We’ve asked them to start thinking about what they might be grateful for during the day so that they have something ready when the time comes.

Just one thing you’re grateful for, and the reasons why they’re grateful for it.

The positive results are significant. Their “thank you’s” were more frequent, more natural and unprompted. They’ve also become more prone to step up to household chores like washing dishes, setting the table and wiping the floor. The results vary and we aren’t as consistent with the practice as we could be. We’ll see if this continues, but I am extremely pleased with the results thus far.

Amazing. Just one little thing.

I think back to all those glum birthdays of my 30’s and realize just how silly I was acting. I don’t know where I’ll be on my next birthday. But I know that if I succeed in raising thankful kids, then I’ll have at least one thing to be grateful about.

Conclusion: How Do You Raise Thankful Kids?

4From "Gimmie" to Grateful: Family Travel, Raising Thankful Kids & How to Teach Gratitude kids in san miguel de allende

This is such a small act of gratitude. There must be others. How do you practice thankfulness? What tips for raising thankful kids could you suggest?

From Gimmie to Grateful Family Travel, Raising Thankful Kids & How to Teach Gratitude PIN 2



  1. Great post Jason! Exactly what I needed to read right now when faced with two kids who want want want all day long. We too model what we hope they will be, but it saddens me that they don’t seem to have much of a grasp on how good they have it. I will certainly give this a go!

    • It’s certainly worth a try, Karen, if for no other reason than how it reminds the parents about gratitude, as well. I know that I’ve become more grateful because of this, and I think the kids have, too. They do struggle to come up with new things sometimes — this is a daily practice, after all — but it’s ok to revisit things we’re happy to have in our lives, right?

  2. Jamie jenkins says

    jason, you and Keiko are such wise and wonderful parents… And your kids are so fortunate to be guided by you.

  3. This is great. I think we need to start this “gratefulness” ritual at our house as well.

    Like you, we try to live modestly and sustainably in our local town, but the reality is that we’re especially fortunate to have so many privileges, no matter how minimally we make our life. And independent of how we as adults try to live, I’m not sure my daughter’s going to “get” it without a deliberate effort and attitude of both gratefulness and compassion for others.

    I’m going to think on this more, but your post definitely touches on issues that are weighing on us right now, about how to raise a healthy, safe, grateful, and constructive member of both a local and world society.

    • Well said, Neal. At first I thought simply modeling the behavior of gratitude would be enough, but the conscious, routine act of being thankful made a HUGE difference — for them, yes, but also for me: it made ME think more about things, as well.

  4. I always tell my son he needs to concentrate on what he has instead of what he wishes he had, and that his life would be better if he’d learned to do that, but frankly, it’s something 99% of adults can’t do.

    • Indeed, Oren. Sometimes I think that he best we can do is get them a little further along than those 99% of adults, and that includes me. Most of us have problems seeing what we have and the good in our lives. I’ve learned almost as much from this new routine as my kids have.