One of the great privileges of my life has been visiting orphanages in places like Russia, China, and South Africa. Taking our children to see those little ones who had no parents, no room of their own, no toys or clothes of their own, was life changing. Through these many experiences we learned that those who have little are often much more grateful than those of us who have much.
Gratitude is not natural. It is an attitude that must be taught and nurtured. And it is a task more difficult for parents in the West because of our abundance and prosperity.
There is a story in the Bible that for many is hard to understand. After God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt … after He miraculously parted the Red Sea to save them from the Egyptian army and led them through the wilderness and provided manna for food every day … they came to the land of Canaan. God had promised them this land. When the scouting party of 12 went to spy out the land they discovered the produce of the land was exceptionally large and bountiful. Good news! But these men also saw it was occupied by a strong people. The men reported bad news.
The response of the population was fear voiced in grumbling and complaining to God. “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt!” they cried. “Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword?” (Numbers 14:2-3).
Ten of the men and the people all responded with no faith in God and His promises. Instead they complained and griped and moaned and—possibly like your children–frowned and stomped their feet. For their ingratitude and lack of faith, God punished the Israelites—they wandered in the desert for another 40 years.
In the same way as a parent, I hated it when my children complained about what they had to eat or what they weren’t allowed to wear that everyone else could wear or what they couldn’t have. After all, didn’t they know we were trying to do our best in raising them?
We gave our kids penalties for complaining and had them memorize Bible verses in hopes that they would get the point. But we never were as radical in our discipline as God was with His children. I might have banished my children to their rooms for 30 minutes for complaining, but to be banished to a desert for 40 years seems a bit over the top!
Why did God make such a big deal about only a bad attitude?
Because it wasn’t just a bad attitude. God knew the issue was ungrateful hearts which were being fed from a heart of unbelief. Ingratitude is really a sign of a proud heart, a heart of rebellion, a heart that says to God, “I don’t believe Your promise that You’d give us the land.”
A grateful heart, on the other hand, is a heart of faith—a heart that trusts in God who loves and keeps His promises no matter what the circumstance might look like to us.
Because all of us are born selfish, it is every parent’s job to train their children’s hearts to be grateful. It’s not an easy task, but it’s a worthy one, for a child with a thankful heart is a delight to parents and to others. And I’m quite sure our Father in heaven smiles as well on your child and on you for a job well done.
But to tell the truth, my kids aren’t the only ones in our family who have a problem with ungratefulness and complaining. Unfortunately, I have to wonder how much of it they caught from their mother. It’s not something you’d see unless maybe you lived with me. But I’m sure that you’d see my problem if you saw my heart.
So if I’m going to have grateful children, I have to commit to being a grateful mother.
Here are a few practical ways to begin modeling gratitude for your family.
1. Talk out loud and frequently about things for which you’re thankful—big and small.
Model gratitude. Let your kids see you thanking waitresses, cleaning staff, Sunday school teachers, and anyone else who helps or serves you.
Prompt them quietly to thank people who help them. Make thank-you notes written by your children and sent in the mail a normal project in your home. Include people like pastors and your children’s ministry leaders as well as grandparents and other family members.
2. Thank your children for their help around the house, their kindness to siblings, for exhibiting a good attitude, and any other small things you notice throughout the day.
3. As a family, memorize Scripture that sets your hearts and minds on thankfulness. Try 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to start: “Give thanks in all things.” Remember all things means all things. Good and not so good. Thanking God helps us remember His already knows the hard things and what is ahead. Thanking Him is a way to strengthen your own faith.
No matter your age, to cultivate gratitude you’ve got to step out of what you normally do, which is thinking about yourself. Set aside your natural bent toward selfishness and focus on others because that is the essence of thanksgiving and gratitude.
Ultimately for us as believers it’s directing our thanksgiving and our gratitude toward the source of everything that we enjoy in life, which is God Himself. Teaching our children to do this will prepare them to live a grateful life of worship.
May we who know Christ be known as a grateful joyful people whose trust rests in Him and not in ourselves or our circumstances.