Have you ever made dinner for your kids, and all you heard were complaints such as, “I don’t like it!”? What about the post-Christmas crash where kids wonder why they didn’t get more? Or exactly what their friends got? How do we teach our children to be thankful? With six kids from teenagers to toddlers, we are still learning. Here are some things that have helped and are helping us in our journey.
Live it out. We must model gratitude. Too often, we aren’t showing them by example how to live grateful lives (Matthew 15:8). Every day it is essential to remember that Jesus came, lived, and died on the cross to forgive us and offer us grace. Apart from Jesus, we deserve death, yet God gave us life in Christ through the Spirit. So, when we don’t have the material things we want, people are not giving us what we want, and we encounter hardships, we can still embrace gratitude. The gospel reframes our expectations so we can remember the greater blessings that are ours in God, not because of anything we have done, but because of what he has done. That spiritual blessing helps us, as parents, to cultivate gratefulness in our own hearts and prepares us to ask our kids to be grateful too. We should live what we believe.
This is a no brainer in our pursuit to train thankfulness in our children. We can’t expect what we don’t train. Kids aren’t born knowing how to say thank you, and neither are we. That is why God has to instruct us all to give thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Too often, our default is selfishness rather than gratefulness. When they were young, we taught them by merely repeating, “Thank you, Mom, for taking care of me,” and “Thank you, Dad, for getting me a glass of water.” There are season-specific activities that can help. For example, some years, we had our kids write what they were thankful for on leaf cutouts and hung them up on Thanksgiving. Every year, we go around the table on Thanksgiving Day and share what we are thankful for. Regularly, we have them say thank you to their coaches, teachers, neighbors, and family members. We need to teach our children to be thankful.
As a large ministry family, we have limited resources. That has been a blessing for training in gratitude. Our children can’t do all the activities or sports they want. We can’t take extravagant vacations or get the latest and greatest gadget. We cap what we get and do and what our children get and do. We give practical gifts for the most part and draw the line at how much we spend. We use a budget. We put caps on life as God does to us (2 Corinthians 4:15-18). We notice that when our children do get something extra, they generally are more appreciative than when we cater to their every whim. The struggle with contentment is an invitation to meet God. We have the most eternally important gift ever, God himself, but that can be hard to see. Planting seeds of God’s goodness early, in times of want, can ripen into strong spiritual roots in his grace that stay watered at all times.
We read with our children great stories of those who have lived with less. I (Katie) have found The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Oranges for Frankie by Patricia Polacco, and missionary biographies to be some of the many helpful children’s books for educating our kids. The Bible uses story to warn and encourage (1 Corinthians 10:6). Read the Bible and books that teach contentment through the power of the story.
Give your children the opportunity to experience different cultures. We each remember what it was like to go to Mexico on mission trips as students in the 90’s. They had few choices at the store, lived in simple homes, and had simple lifestyles. Those experiences impressed us with the vast material blessings God had given us which in turn has made us more grateful. Some of our children have been able to experience this by serving on mission trips and in the community. On the flip side, exposing our kids to those who have more can help too. When they see what they can’t have, jealousy and envy can surface. Those also are times we can point to God’s forgiveness, blessings, and call on our lives to be thankful in times of plenty and times of want (Philippians 4:11). Where discontentment surfaces, opportunity arises. Focusing on what we truly need, namely, the forgiveness of sins and peace with God, in addition to basic necessities, can radically alter our view on what is most important. We can help our kids learn thankfulness from others.
Giving and sharing with a sibling, neighbor or friend creates a moment for a child to say thank you. Every year at Christmas, my wife creates “Mom’s Store” with pretend money and small gifts. Our children go “shopping” for each other and wrap the presents they pick out to give. We have been doing this for almost a decade, and it has turned our Christmas gift-giving into a time of anticipation of delighting others. Our teens are already talking about using their own money to buy gifts for their younger siblings. Why are they excited? In part, it is because they have tasted the joy of giving. It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). Giving promotes a content heart.
As we train our children to be thankful, and they seem to get it, point out the grace we see in them. Seize those moments to encourage their hearts that the Holy Spirit is at work in them. Recognition of grace and true encouragement of the soul can spur them on to continue to practice the discipline of gratitude (Romans 12:10).
God created us to sing. We don’t know much about heaven, but we do know those who are there sing. One song they are singing is Revelation 11:17, thanks to God. We can join the heavenly choir and teach our kids to sing today. This can give words to the thoughts of their hearts. Singing old and new songs like “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Jesus Paid it All” offer words for their souls. Sing songs that point to who God is and what he has done. Pick an instrument, hymnal, or listen online. Sing around the dinner table, in the car, or as they go to bed. Experiment to find a time that works for you and sing. Remembering God’s blessings in song helps us in good times and bad times to be thankful.
Take time to put faith into action and pray (Philippians 4:6-7). We must pray thankful prayers with our children. Model when they are young and as they grow how to relate to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What a humbling privilege to be able to pass down our faith in the Creator of the universe, the only reality that matters to precious, moldable children. Thank God for health, provision, the day, and them. We can pray for our kids’ attitudes. We can pour out our hearts to God in front of these small listening ears. Ask the Giver of life and heart change to train our kids up with grateful hearts.
How do we teach our kids to be grateful? We ultimately need to put our trust in our Heavenly Father, who has graciously entrusted our precious children to us (Proverbs 3:5-6). God is the one who changes hearts. At a young age, we can force our kids to say thanks, but we can’t change their hearts. They can be thankful on the outside and a mess on the inside. We must give our children back to God every day because they are his. We need to trust God as we seek to follow His lead and lead His little followers.
Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to start on a life-long journey of teaching our kids to be thankful. Join us!