Thanksgiving Day is the obvious reminder for families to be thankful. Even the youngest can come up with more than one thing they are thankful for on that day. Doing so is a good start for raising thankful children.
At the same time, a spirit of thanksgiving can soon make for thoughtful children — thoughtful of others and kindhearted in their actions. Naturally, parents have a major hand in leading and teaching them to be thankful as well as thoughtful.
Kevin and Cindy Engelkamp of Bellevue, Neb., have seen both go hand-in-hand in their 34 years of married life. Their seven children range in age from 9 to 29 years old.
In recent years, the Engelkamps and their younger children at home (two are now married) begin Thanksgiving Day among the 200 volunteers serving 500 Thanksgiving dinners to homeless and low-income people at their parish of St. Peter Church in Omaha. Kevin and Cindy are highly involved in the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
All the young boys dress in white shirts and bow ties and act as waiters, and the girls serve dessert at the community meal. The parish teenagers contribute in various other ways, including baking pies.
The results and lessons are obvious for the young who are lending a hand with their parents. “They get that face-to-face encounter with the poor,” Kevin Engelkamp said. “We’re seeing people, interacting and talking to them and being there to smile at them.”
“A lot of those people who come for the meal don’t get treated well by society, but we make it a point to make them feel special,” noted Kevin.
Cindy Engelkamp said even the youngest help in whatever way they can, as do the youngsters of other families who volunteer for service on Thanksgiving Day and at other times throughout the year.
“It’s important that kids know how blessed they are,” she said. “When they actually see people face-to-face and the conditions they are living, it has an impact on them.”
The service becomes a key part of their lives, said Kevin, adding that they begin to “look forward to it.”
Father Bill Quinlivan, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Tonawanda, N.Y., bears this out.
For example, instead of just writing a check, “meet the people who are going to benefit from your generosity,” he suggested.
He himself does so at St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy in Buffalo, where the young and the elderly alike come in, those with walkers and those whose lives have taken a couple of turns for the worse. “It makes you more grateful for what you have,” he said. “Yet the world teaches children to think of what they don’t have yet.”
This thankfulness-thoughtfulness connection begins in the home.
John and Teresa Preiss in Hanceville, Ala., have seven children ranging in age from an infant to 11 years old.
John Preiss described the family Thanksgiving meals when Father Robert Fox, founder of the Fatima Family Apostolate, was a guest, and he went around the table asking each one, even the youngest, what they were thankful for in order to keep the children aware of the importance of being thankful.
“It has really benefited them in their spirituality, doing that at an early age,” Preiss said.
That gratitude should carry through every day of the year. “One of the things that has benefited us is sitting down at the table and making sure we say the blessing before meals and the after-grace [prayer] too, even in restaurants,” Preiss said.
Preiss shared another beneficial practice. “When we say our daily Rosary together as a family, the children also add their intentions of who to pray for.” And night prayers together include thanksgivings and praying for all in the family.
Father Quinlivan, who is also a singer-songwriter (FrBillSings.com), likes to share about the “gratitude Rosary” he and his friends pray together. With every Our Father and Hail Mary, everyone has to mention something they are thankful for. By the fifth decade, it really pushes everyone to think deeply (no repetitions allowed!).
“For our kids, it has been a way of life,” said Cindy Engelkamp about developing thoughtfulness and thanksgiving in her children. “As they grow, they become more and more thoughtful.”
Sometimes the family’s collective efforts inspire the children in their own initiatives.
The Engelkamps enjoy helping with the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s winter-coat giveaway — nearly 6,000 coats were given in Omaha last year.
When son Alex, who is now studying law, was a high-school junior, he initiated a coat drive at his school. And daughter Mary Jo, now in college, also did a coat drive at Roncalli Catholic High School in Omaha.
Today, Alex is considering how he might be able to use his law degree to help the poor once he graduates. Same for his wife, Hilary, who is a registered nurse.
Age Is No Barrier
Kevin Engelkamp said many families with several small children are involved in the food pantry maintained at the parish. The children enjoy their “jobs,” from sorting to bagging. Other children involved in scouting put in much effort to bring groceries for food drives.
Learning thoughtfulness that grows from being thankful starts from an early age, Father Quinlivan agreed.
Father Quinlivan told the story of a 5-year-old in his parish who went spontaneously into his room on Christmas Eve, printed “For the Poor” on his yellow plastic pail, and then passed it around the Christmas family gathering for a collection.
And Nancy Tefft related how her 6-year-old son Billy “searched the house, looking for spare change that he could give to the poor. Later, we put together a few items, along with the change, to give to the St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Peter’s” in Omaha. “As the feast of St. Vincent de Paul approached, Billy wanted to do more for the poor,” his mother added.
Cindy Engelkamp had just the work for him: helping to break down bulk rice into smaller portions for distribution to the hungry.
“Forty pounds of rice later, he asked for more,” Billy’s mother noted. “He is now on his second set of rice.”
In the Preiss household, where the children are home-schooled, the young girls offer to do things without being asked, and the oldest children like to serve in many ways. For example, 11-year-old Mark really enjoys helping care for the baby.
When it comes to those outside of the family, the older girls decided to let their hair grow until they can get 12 inches cut off so that they can donate that hair to Locks of Love, which uses the hair to make wigs for those who have lost their own hair due to illness. Already, 9-year-old Lauren has done so three times.
The Preiss children together saved up $200 from money they earned specifically to send to help the refugees forced from their homes in Iraq.
“They did this because they wanted to do it, not because we told them to do it,” noted their father John.
“It gives that sense we’re on the right track here, working at the early ages to try to instill thankfulness and thoughtfulness and to just keep persevering and teaching,” he observed. “It becomes a way of life once they learn that.”
Father Quinlivan says this attitude of gratitude must have its root in the Church. He explained that many think of Sunday Mass as just an obligation and not as an opportunity for praising and thanking God for all he has done and has yet to do.
His recommendation: “Raise children as Eucharistic-minded children in this habit of thanking as well as thinking about other people.”
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.