7 Tips for Cultivating Gratitude in Children

October 27, 2013 — Leave a comment

be-grateful[Note: The following article is published in the fall/winter edition of Arkansas Christian Parent magazine.]

Several years ago, Michelle and I had the opportunity to visit New York City for an extended weekend getaway. I had long desired to experience the buzz of the Big Apple, with its honking taxis, street vendors, and glistening skyscrapers. For a Southern guy, the ‘city that never sleeps’ was a real change of scenery, a sharp contrast from the more sprawling and laid-back Dallas-Fort Worth area that had been home for several years.

Indeed, New York tickled the senses with its sights, sounds, and smells (not all of which were pleasant, by the way). However, I found one thing in strikingly short supply: hospitality. New Yorkers are a different breed, to be sure. It didn’t take long for my wife and I to notice that our smiles, nods, and pleasantries were almost always ignored. Was this a by-product of busyness, or merely an outward manifestation of a prevailing ‘each man for himself’ mentality?

Perhaps nowhere was the sense of unconcern for others more evident than at the subway stations. And woe to those who dared to try and walk against the mob of people who exited the station at each stop! Michelle and I commented to each other that the most frequently used greeting was not much of a greeting at all. As our shoulders brushed against a seemingly endless sea of people, person after person grimaced and snapped, “Excuse you.”

That’s right. One of the kindest and most common expressions — at least in the South — had been corrupted and turned into a belittling battle cry that seemed to say, “You don’t belong here. Get out of our way.”

Now, in fairness I feel compelled to acknowledge that this prevailing attitude of ‘me first’ was by no means universal. There were moments of kindness and courtesy, although most of them, as I recall, seemed to come from other visitors to the city — people who no doubt knew all too well the feeling of being lost in a place where no one knows your name.

In the years since our trip to the big city, I have come to understand that while it’s easy to pick on millions of anonymous people in New York City, the ‘me first’ mentality is increasingly creeping into rural areas of our nation, even the deep South.

Jesus modeled a lifestyle of service to others. Even in a day and time without traffic, wireless technology, and seemingly constant noise, His humility stood out to others. Christian parents have a responsibility to help shape the character of their children by teaching them the truths of Scripture and by following the example of Christ. One of the Bible’s most enduring themes is gratitude. I would go so far to say that gratitude is the antidote to selfishness.

In a self-absorbed culture that demands its way about any number of things, genuine gratitude shines like a brilliant diamond. As the holiday season draws near, the world will bombard us with commercials, catalogs, sales circulars, and annoying internet ads designed to appeal to the selfish nature that resides within us all. As Christian parents, let’s do our best to instill a spirit of gratitude and generosity in our children all throughout the year. Here are a few ways you can lead your children to practice these values:

1. Say ‘thank you.’ Far too many adults have fallen into the entitlement mentality that says, “It’s all about me.” Parents of preschoolers might encourage their young ones by making a game of looking and listening for people to thank. This will likely include supermarket checkers, the mail deliverer, restaurant servers, and school custodians. When we say “thank you” we’re actually saying, “You didn’t have to do that, but I’m glad you did.” By the way, bonus points should be awarded when the person is thanked by name. We humans like the sound of our name — and always notice when people take time to note it.

2. Put it in writing. Hand-written notes are almost a relic of the past, which makes them that much more valuable today. And thank-you notes should not be reserved for actual material gifts. Take time to thank people for their hospitality, kindness, and friendship. When you write heartfelt expressions of gratitude, you say to the recipient (and implicitly to your children) “I am blessed.” Be careful to acknowledge not just the big and obvious blessings in your life but also the small ones. Help your children to write thank-you notes in their own words.

3. Say a blessing before meals. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I know many Christians who don’t regularly voice a prayer before they begin a meal. A simple blessing can help remind your children — and yourself — of God’s goodness in providing for our physical needs.

4. Participate in a family mission project. Our family loves to shop together each year to pick out gifts for Operation Christmas Child. Whether it’s packing a shoe box for a boy or girl, visiting someone in a nursing home, or serving together at a local soup kitchen, you will cultivate an awareness of the many needs in our world. Parents, please realize that many charitable organizations have more volunteers than they need during the holiday season. However, you can be involved on an ongoing basis throughout the year!

5. Create a Blessing Tree. There are a number of ways to incorporate this simple idea into your Thanksgiving celebration. Our family writes some specific things for which we are grateful on die-cut leaves made of construction paper. Each time we enjoy a meal together, we choose one or two leaves to read, thanking God for loving us. Moms, you can find many examples of this on Pinterest.

6. Donate toys for less fortunate boys and girls. Let’s face it: most American children get spoiled at birthdays and Christmas. There’s never a bad time to purge the toy closet or playroom of items that are not being used. Obviously, the toys should still work as intended and have all corresponding parts. Many churches, hospitals, and charities will accept gently used toys for use by the children they serve. Make sure to double-check your local resources so that your generosity doesn’t end up lining the pockets of a corporate executive. For birthdays, you might encourage your children to consider having their friends bring one new toy to be donated to a children’s hospital, Children’s Advocacy Center, or homeless shelter.

7. Don’t wait for special occasions! Every year millions of people worldwide are impacted by natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, and wildfires. When you hear of such devastation, make an effort to talk with your children about way you can help. This past spring, many Arkansas churches sent ‘buckets of love’ filled with a variety of needed items to Oklahoma immediately following the catastrophic storms.

If you want to encourage a spirit of gratitude and generosity in your children, you must realize that God has placed you in a position to lead in that direction. Far too many parents — even Christian parents — relegate the spiritual development of their children to the church. As wonderful and dedicated as Sunday School teachers are, they will never have the level of impact that you as a parent can have.

Just think of the difference we can make in our world if we learn how to successfully raise ‘excuse me’ children in an ‘excuse you’ world.

What helpful practices can you share about teaching children to be grateful?

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