By Laura Simon

I was driving my boys to swim team practice when the car in front of me slammed on the brakes. Actually, he did it three of four times before pulling halfway into a turn lane and coming to a complete stop, with half of his car hanging into the lane where I was driving.

I had to slam on my own brakes, and because I pretty much drive a rolling library, an avalanche of books and toys crashed to the floor, sliding under the seats. We were all OK, but I was rattled. I could have hit the back of the other car, or been hit because I had to stop suddenly in a 50 mph zone.

“You can’t just stop in the middle of the road,” I muttered to the driver of the other car. “It’s called driving. Learn to do it.”

Honestly, I was feeling pretty good about my response because A) I didn’t say anything more colorful, and B) I didn’t raise my voice. I kind of expected congratulations from the back seat, but instead my six-year-old piped up.

“Mommy, I think you need to show that person some grace.”

Now believe me, I had all sorts of answers ready for his holy little self, but something stopped me.

He’s been paying attention.

I’ve been talking about grace and love since he was old enough to listen. He gets it from church, from the radio, from friends. I lecture about showing grace to his siblings when they accidentally breathe on his cup or fart in the general direction of his face. And I’ve been giving him grace and pointing it out, in hopes that someday he’ll understand the concept.

I didn’t think I was getting anywhere, until I had to slam on my brakes.

This probably seems like a random story for a blog about Thanksgiving, but what I learned from our near-accident has a lot to do with what I’m learning about teaching kids to be thankful. This year, I decided that I was done enabling entitlement in my kids. We were going to learn to appreciate what we have, darn it.

So I created a “Thankful Tree” for our living room. I brazenly picked branches from a tree in the empty lot next door and plopped them in a vase. I punched holes in fake leaves, and tied them up with string. I declared that they would be thankful every day, and by the end of November, the tree would be full of leaves.

Then I asked my kids what they were thankful for, and the answers weren’t exactly what I was expecting. “I’m thankful for football!” my oldest squealed.

“Football? You don’t play football.”

“But I can watch it. And I love it.”

I was thinking more along the lines of food, family, a home…but OK, I wrote “football” on the leaf.

“I’m thankful for Minecraft,” my second son informed me.

“Me, too!” my oldest chimed in. “I want a Minecraft leave too!”

So…one football leaf and two Minecraft leaves. Did I mention that they can barely play Minecraft, and they get only an hour a week to hone their skills?

My youngest wasn’t about to be outdone. She was thankful for rocks, and I starting feeling pretty hurt that no one was thankful for the pumpkin chocolate chip pancakes I’d made for breakfast.

It was like pulling teeth, getting them to think of things they appreciated. And I think that’s partly my fault. While I am overflowing with gratitude for pretty much every part of my life, I don’t think I often say that out loud. I might share if I’m grumpy or tired or not feeling well, but speaking from gratitude isn’t a regular part of my life.

It’s not really fair to ask my kids to do something I don’t do. How will they learn what gratitude means if I don’t model it for them?

So this week, I’ve been adding my own leaf to the Thankful Tree each day. I’ve been doing it in the quiet, early morning, and letting the kids discover the leaves later in the day, laboriously spelling out each word I write. And I’ve been intentionally speaking out loud the things I notice to be thankful for, like the afternoon light streaming through the front windows of our house, or the bright fall colors that linger on the trees lining my favorite streets.

My kids are paying attention, and I want them to see me taking the time to notice and appreciate all the little gifts I discover each day. It turns out gratitude is a lesson that takes more than the month of November to teach. I’m getting started now, and hopefully next year we’ll be able to come up with more than football, Minecraft, and rocks.