An attitude of gratitude - something we all love. In times past, it was perhaps easier to be grateful, but now there are so many lovely homes, cars, clothes, so many incredible toys - and some of those toys are not just for children. So do we throw in the towel and say that it is unlikely we will ever have kids who are grateful for what they have, kids who can see beyond themselves? No, a thousand times no! We all realize that our first responsibility as believers is to do what is right whether anyone responds or not. There is hope - so let's find some answers.
Your children are likely to respond to your own gratitude that you express to others and the gratitude that you and your spouse express to each other. This may not be something we want to hear, but this makes sense, doesn't it? We cannot expect a child to show gratitude when he observes that we and our spouse do not regularly have an attitude of gratitude toward each other. For instance, husbands can thank their wives for preparing a meal; it does not have to be a perfect meal. When my children were growing up, my husband thanked me for every dinner as a courtesy, not because I am a gourmet cook.
In addition to openly expressing appreciation for your spouse, the child should see appreciation expressed to others in the family, including himself. Why is it inherently difficult for children (and adults) to express gratitude? According to Paul Lewis in 40 Ways to Teach Your Child Values, "When a child sincerely says thank you, he or she feels open and vulnerable, because it's an expression of dependence. That's why it's so important that we don't drown that small thankful spirit by demanding adult-like expressions of gratitude" (Lewis, 1997, p.88). Please read Lewis' incredible insight again. When the child is a child, he has much to learn. Remember that he or she needs time, patience, and training in expressing a grateful heart. A 26-year-old will likely be very different in this regard than he or she was at thirteen.
My sister began raising her three children before I had mine. Naively, I once asked her, "When did you start teaching them to say 'please' and 'thank you?'" Her quick response was, "Not soon enough!" Let the words "please" and "thank you" be household words. When the child is very young, after saying prayers as you say goodnight, sing the chorus, "Thank You, Lord, for saving my soul; thank You, Lord, for making me whole, thank You, Lord, for giving me Thy great salvation so rich and free." Children love music and songs, many of which express gratitude.
As parents, we are in the business of seizing moments of opportunity to help our children enjoy a chorus, to be grateful, to enjoy small things - things that cost very little or nothing at all. Help them to enjoy everyday things like a sunset, a flower, the rain. For years a plaque hung in my kitchen; it said, "Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are." We all need that reminder.
In a world where our children will often be encouraged to have a sense of entitlement, let us help them to be happy with less instead of more. When you must have fast food, remember that a child can get a hamburger at McDonald's without buying a "Happy Meal." This is not harsh - think about it; if every time they go to McDonald's they expect a "Happy Meal," how can they appreciate a "Happy Meal" when they do happen to get one? We must help them move toward gratitude, a quality that will serve them well in their own homes and in all of their lives. On a much broader scale than our local McDonald's, let us look at a quote on gratitude from Gordon MacDonald in A Resilient Life: You Can Move Ahead No Matter What: "Two issues mark decadent societies according to Paul (Romans 1:21): an unwillingness to acknowledge (or honor) the Creator, and a resistance to gratitude" (MacDonald, 2006, p. 132).
Now here are a few ideas to enhance this quality we so want to cultivate: if safety is not an issue, keep a sack of groceries in the car for that homeless person at the stop light. Or better yet, take a sack of groceries to a shelter nearby with your children. Occasionally drive through a poor but reasonably safe neighborhood so your children can better understand how little some folks have. Avoid the television when you can. Commercials, for example, give us a constant reminder of what we don't have and what we should desperately desire. Need I say more? Spend time outdoors as a family - appreciating, camping, building a sandcastle, hiking, biking, whatever. Nature was intended to add to our enjoyment. God wants us to enjoy his creation and be grateful.
Get involved in a mission-minded church, home missions, foreign missions, or both. If at all possible, "do missions" as a family, or mother and daughter on a venture or father and son. Normally missions is something that blesses everyone involved, develops gratitude, and brings many worthwhile memories that are never forgotten.
Help your children to be grateful for our country and those who have made it the free nation that it is. Give them a good background in our roots. For example, did you know that John Adams, who became our 2nd president, served in Europe for four years trying to get trade agreements for our struggling new country while his much beloved wife Abigail was at home running the family farm? We know so much about them because we have the letters they wrote, letters of love and sacrifice. The stories of the sacrifices of families over the years are inspiring and they encourage a sense of gratitude.
It has been said that the best way to teach your children to appreciate money is to not have much. But with the money we have, we can teach them to give generously but wisely, to stretch their dollars, to read labels, to buy selectively.
None of this will do everything we would like to do to help our children develop all the qualities we want them to have, but we can all take some steps, steps that can be taken as we "walk along the road" (Deuteronomy 6:7) each day with our children. I wish you well in this venture because as you graciously teach gratitude to your children, you will be helping them to have a much happier life, a more fulfilling and contented life that brings them more peace and that honors God.