A few years ago our family started a gratitude jar for the month of November. It started simple with just an empty large Mason jar and a few slips of paper, but the impact the gratitude jar has had on our family over the years has been profound and bigger then I ever expected.
When the idea of the gratitude jar came to me, I thought it would be a good idea for my boys (and my husband and I) to notice all the blessings in our life. I am a big believer that kids learn through doing and experiencing so filling a jar with slips of paper of things we were grateful for seemed like the perfect activity.
I thought the gratitude jar would help my boys see the blessings in life, but what I never expected was that it would be a window into their personalities and character development.
The first year of the gratitude jar I immediately noticed that we all became more present in our daily lives throughout the month as we thought about what we were thankful for. I could tell that my boys were becoming more aware of what was happening at each moment in life as if they seemed to soak it all in.
Each morning as they sat up to the breakfast table they excitedly grabbed little slips of paper and started writing note after note. The jar was full of gratitude slips for things typical for little boys – rocks, trees, sticks, puddles, and of course family, God and angels. My husband and I filled it with slips of paper with our kids names on it, each other, our home and love.
I was pleased with the impact the gratitude jar had on our family and loved the time our family spent on Thanksgiving reading the slips of paper. I thought it would end there, but it didn’t.
That year when Christmas morning arrived the boys woke up early to open presents as usual, but what happened next surprised me.
Instead of ripping into their presents and opening gift after gift, the boys each opened one gift carefully and then proceeded to play with it for about an hour before moving to the next gift. With hot coco on the stove (and in our bellies) we played the herb board game they received, not once, but many times before they decided to move to the next gift. Then they sat curled up on the couch nearly reading the entire A to Z Mysteries book series we gave them!
That Christmas was the most magical Christmas we have ever had. The day was truly filled with that often taught Christmas wonder as they explored each gift and what it had to offer. It was that day that everyone dreams of full of peace and full of love with no rush. A true reflection of the Christmas spirit.
While the gratitude jar and all the little slips of paper was tucked away ready for next year, the gratitude seemed to linger in my boys hearts all year long.
As soon as the month of November started nearing the next year, my boys eagerly awaited for the gratitude jar to return to our table. The gratitude jar received a warm welcome and within a few days the jar started to fill up with those colorful slips of paper. Once again, we all felt so present in our lives and in control of experiencing every moment.
When we left to travel out of state for Thanksgiving my boys both said, “Don’t forget the gratitude jar mom!” They wanted to read the slips of paper in the car, but I mentioned we had to wait until Thanksgiving day. Early the next morning there was the jar so full that the colorful contents were spilling out. As we sat in the hotel room each taking our turn reading the slips of paper from the jar, I realized that the gratitude jar wasn’t just about being grateful, but was like a miniature window into each of our personalities. It was also a window into a particular day. When a slip with maple syrup was read I instantly remembered that morning that we had pancakes and doused them with maple syrup. I could practically hear the laughter of that day and all that followed. With each slip of paper, different memories and emotions flooded into our hearts.
That year as Christmas was approaching the boys focused less on gifts and more on the excitement of being with family at grandma and grandpa’s. I could see that not only were they becoming more grateful, but what they valued in life was also changing. Perhaps it wasn’t changing, but rather they started focusing on what mattered in life verses the fleeting joy received from material goods.
As their 9th birthday neared one of my sons came into the room and exclaimed that he didn’t really want any gifts for his birthday, but rather just time with friends and family along with a party. He just wanted to experience his birthday fully. As you can imagine, my heart swelled with pride and joy. I thought everyone would be proud of him, but it turns out that our society is so used to gifts as a sign of love that it took some time for them to understand why he felt that way.
This year I didn’t know what to expect as a lesson learned from the gratitude jar. We recently had a new baby, so I expected it to be filled with gratitude for her, but the gift that the gratitude jar brought was just a little more unexpected.
My son D was the first to add a slip of paper for the jar. Since the jar was basically empty I could read the slip clearly. What I learned from that little piece of pink construction paper was the greatest gift of all. I learned who my son was at his core. As a mom you always think you know your kids well, but this was absolute confirmation.
A few minutes after placing his paper in the gratitude jar my son said, “Mom did you see what I put in there?” I replied, “Yes, I did. It said WORK.”
“Yep, I’m grateful for work mom,” he casually responded. “I don’t like it when you tell me to do it, I don’t like it when I am doing it, but the satisfaction I get after I am done makes it worth it. It makes me feel good.”
Boom. Talk about dropping something heavy and grown-up into the gratitude jar!
I wanted to run around the room rejoicing and shouting to the world “This is amazing!!!!”, but instead I calmly reached for his arm and gave him one of those hugs that makes you want to sink in forever.
At the age of 9 he already knew what mattered for building his confidence. He understood what grateful meant better then any dictionary could describe.
I knew then that reading the gratitude jar this year was going to be one of the most rewarding times of the year.
As we sat in candlelight reading the various colors of construction paper this year my heart was again full. I felt like my little grateful experiment that I started years ago with the gratitude jar was the best tradition yet in our family. As the slips of paper were read I was less surprised by the contents. Life, love, family, people, a cozy home, it all seemed expected. Then the unexpected happened again.
On a little slip of pink paper the word MISTAKES was written.
There was a pause as we all took in the magnitude of its meaning.
With a broad smile on his face my son expanded, “The best learning comes from mistakes.”
I knew then that what I work so hard to instill in my kids is not only heard, but understood.
Yes indeed, the gratitude jar in November is here to stay as a permanent tradition in our family.
For a few days I wondered if the jar should be out every day, but then I realized that sometimes when we do something everyday we take it for granted. When something happens only once a year we take notice, we wait for it, we anticipate it and unexpected things happen.
May your life be full of the unexpected.