Gratitude is one of those qualities we all know we should practice more. In our busy family lives it can be challenging to find the right ways to develop a sense of gratitude in our kids without coming across as nagging. After all, telling your children to be grateful seems like the least likely way to help them feel it more.
If you’re like me, every year a few holiday seasons, like Thanksgiving, remind me that I should be focusing my thoughts on being grateful for what I have. I know the Bible verses:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6b-7 ESV)
I know that peace is promised to a prayerful heart of gratitude. But that doesn’t prevent me from forgetting to cultivate it in myself and encourage it in those around me. I am aware of the fact that Paul starts off almost every single letter with a prayer of thanksgiving, and I know that thankfulness isn’t just for some occasions but should characterize all our lives:
Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 5:20 ESV)
What I didn’t realize before was just how practical and positive the effects of gratitude are on our well-being. Studies show that people who have made gratitude a habit are more likely to:
- Eat healthier
- Develop stronger immune systems
- Experience more energy
- Demonstrate optimism and mental acuity
- Cope with stress better
- Describe life with high satisfaction
- Exercise regularly
- Solve difficult mental challenges easier
- Have deeper friendships
- Sleep better
- Have increased self-worth and self-esteem
- Show increased productivity
- Enjoy work and perform better on the job
For more on the benefits of gratitude, check out this article:
It seems as if God has wired us to flourish most as human beings when we develop the habit of thankfulness.
With all this encouragement to develop gratitude in ourselves and our children, where do we start? How can we help our kids grow in gratitude without nagging them or seeming self-serving?
Here are five suggestions with some thoughts borrowed from the British educator, Charlotte Mason.
1. Sow the Idea of Gratitude
Too often we think that our children will learn something without any explicit teaching about it. That’s not how it works for us. If I’m trying to grow in some area of my life, my first step will often be reading or learning about it. Starting a new habit requires setting up a new neural pathway in the brain, sowing the idea deep into the heart.
So one of the most practical starting points for developing gratitude in your family is to have an inspiring discussion about it. Maybe this looks like reading Bible verses about gratitude and talking about them and then thinking through as a family why it’s so important to be grateful for what we have.
Charlotte Mason followed this tactic in her book Ourselves by embedding a chapter on gratitude as one of the qualities of love. If we want to see growth in ourselves or our children in particular virtues, it’s so important to follow the proactive tactic of sowing ideas positively, rather than just responding negatively to a vice with nagging.
It’s also a good idea to discuss the benefits of gratitude listed above. This might help your children understand that gratitude isn’t about boosting someone else’s ego. It’s about their own flourishing. Charlotte Mason intuited such benefits when she claimed that gratitude does more than almost any other virtue “to guide us into joyous and happy living” (Ourselves, ch. 7).
2. Train their Responses to Kindness
While there’s no denying that gratitude is a spiritual grace, it manifests itself in our lives as a trained habit or virtue. As Paul says in Galatians,
“the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (6:8 ESV)
So there is a disciplined and orderly training that is involved in spiritual graces like gratitude.
Helping train our children’s responses to kindness is how we take gratitude from a yearly discussion – with little fruit – to a developed habit that actually has an impact on our day-to-day family life.
The key here is to be on the lookout as a parent for any little kindness that is done to yourself or your children. We often miss out on these little opportunities to cultivate gratitude because of self-absorption or complacency:
We lose this joy often enough because we are too self-absorbed to be aware of kindness, or are too self-complacent to think any kindness more than our desert. (Ourselves, ch. 7)
Awareness and humility are necessary for developing gratitude. You have to believe that you’ve received something more than you deserve.
Then, when you’ve caught the right moment, encourage your child in the proper response. Perhaps it’s a formal thank you with a card. But other times something simple and sincere is called for. Maybe it’s noticing the kind clerk at the store, who always strikes up a meaningful conversation, and encouraging your child to look him or her in the eye and give a bright smile. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that come from the heart.
Of course, it’s also important to have the standard family discussion about what we’re grateful for this Thanksgiving, but isolated incidents on their own are unlikely to make gratitude a more ingrained habit in daily life. The battle is won in the small things.
3. Model Gratitude Yourself
The last piece of advice I would give for helping your children grow in gratitude is to model it yourself. This is always easier said than done. However, we know that our kids imitate what we do more than what we say. And so if you’re really wanting to transform your family culture into one of gratitude, the most long-lasting change has to come from you, consistently and sincerely, day-in and day-out.
To do this proactively find ways to thank your children. When they do something kind, even if it’s not directed toward you, share in the love and thank them! It’s important to expect our children to do what they should, rather than the flip side of not expecting it (which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy). But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t thank our children and express our gratitude for how they do it, or when they do it. Of course, any little kindness they do for one another or for you should receive its natural acknowledgement. I’m not suggesting that you overdo it; insincere and over-the-top praise for tiny things can backfire. But it’s important not to let real opportunities pass us by.
In addition, expressing gratitude to your spouse can be one of the most powerful modelling moments for your children. And it might just bring positive blessings to your marriage as well!
Final Thoughts on Gratitude
In all this, it’s important to have a growth mindset in our parenting efforts. We’re all going to make mistakes along the way, and while that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t correct ourselves or our children, it does prevent us from expressing negative judgment. Instead, gratitude flows from a family culture of love and grace.
Finally, joy is the natural reward of gratitude. We should always treat gratitude as something we get to express, even if it is also something we ought to express. It should feel good when we do it; otherwise, we’re not doing it right. And ultimately, God should be the object of all our gratitude, since as James says,
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (1:17 ESV)