One of the great privileges of my life has been visiting multiple orphanages in Russia, China, and South Africa. Taking our children to third world countries to interact with Christians and ministries was life changing.
In 2006 we traveled with our daughter Rebecca and her husband of one year, Jake, to South Africa. One of the many highlights of that trip was our time at orphanages. And this photo is one of my all-time favorites! Those faces!!!
Children living with what are unquestionably meager food and nurturing, but who still express genuine gratitude for the smallest of gifts teach that abundance does not make for thanksgiving. Deprivation actually grows appreciation for goodness.
Gratitude is not natural. The Bible teaches we are born sinful and selfish and we must train our hearts to give thanks. Parents learn early that saying thank you is a skill 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 was hard for me to understand for many years. Starting in Exodus is a pivotal story about the nation of Israel who wandered in a desert for 40 years as punishment for ingratitude. 40 years! 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! We gave penalties for complaining and had them memorize Bible verses in hopes that they would get the point, but we were never as radical in our discipline as God seemed to be in His.
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, just like the nation of Israel did. So I can sympathize with how God felt.
But still, why did God make such a big deal about a bad attitude?
I believe it’s because He understood better than we can possibly imagine how an ungrateful heart is really a proud heart, a heart of rebellion to God. Ingratitude is the gateway to greater sin.
God the perfect parent had and still has today ungrateful rebellious kids. Training selfish hearts to be grateful is not an easy task. Makes me feel better that I’m not alone in this.
But to be perfectly honest, my kids weren’t the only ones in our family who had a problem with an ungrateful and complaining heart. Their parents did too. I had to ask, what does God see in my heart? What kind of model was I and am I now for my children? How much of a complaining spirit did they catch from their mother? Or father?
To have grateful kids, means first becoming a grateful parent.
Here are a few practical ways to begin modeling gratitude for your family.
- Talk out loud and frequently about things for which you’re thankful—big and small. Lead them as you carpool home or at bedtime to each name at least one person or circumstance for which they are grateful that day.
- Let your kids see you thanking waitresses, cleaning staff, Sunday school teachers, checkout workers, and all “unseen” helpers. Practice saying more than the two words thank you, too. Model using people’s names since many employees have name badges. Name the work for which you are grateful; like, thank you Josh for sacking my groceries. Then prompt your kids to thank people who serve them.
- Teach your children the art of writing and sending thank-you notes. Email and text don’t count. Getting a hand-written note in the mail is more meaningful today than ever. It’s a gift itself. When they become adults they can choose to abandon your instruction but do it while you can. It might stick or come back later in life. It’s a valuable life skill.
- Thank your children for their help around the house, their kindness to siblings, exhibiting a good attitude. Ask God to help you notice every little thing that you can praise. Parents get so focused on surviving the day they can easily miss little positive deeds.
- As a family … not just your kids … memorize scripture that sets your heart and mind on thankfulness. Try 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to start: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” There are lots of others, at least 36 with the word thanksgiving alone. Or have your kids use a bible app to see how many verses they can find. Help them compete over something more eternally valuable than who gets to sit in the front seat! (Some of our favorites: The Bible App, You Version, or our grandkids love the Bible App for Kids).
No matter your age, to cultivate gratitude, you have to step out of what you normally do, which is think about self. Choose to turn away from selfishness and focus on somebody else because that is the essence of thanksgiving and gratitude.
For us, as Christ-followers, we must practice directing our thanksgiving and our gratitude toward the Source of everything that we enjoy in life, which is God Himself. Hebrews 5:14 reminds us practice is not just for sports or piano. It’s taught in the Bible; “Solid food is for the mature, who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
Teaching our children to think with gratitude will prepare them to live an adult life of faith in the God you want them to follow.