I have a painful memory of traveling with a friend, her aunt and mother, to visit the college that we would later attend together. My friend’s aunt was a pleasant woman that made this excursion a joy for me. But as we headed back to Chicago and stopped at a restaurant for lunch, I felt a sudden coldness from her. I was baffled and hurt. My friend’s mother set me straight about what was happening. “She has treated you over and over again to meals yet never once did you say thank you.” My self-esteem was fragile, as it was, but this event sent me into a depression. I cannot even remember what I did. It seemed that my sin was so great that there was no hope of making things right.
This snapshot experience surely contributed to my awareness of the importance of expressing gratitude. But it did not touch on the importance of feeling gratitude, of actually being grateful. That is a lesson that would take years for me to learn. I needed to recognize what it means to grow up with a sense of entitlement or to have the mentality of a victim. I had yet to realize that I lived with a sense of lack rather than abundance. An attitude of gratitude, I found, is the secret to happiness. Today I feel grateful.
In my parenting classes, I brought up the issue of teaching gratitude to children. It was almost always the topic for my classes the week before Thanksgiving. I wanted to tie it in with the culture of “gimme” that people gripe about surrounding Christmas. I would like to share with you some of the ideas that rose out of these discussion. The sources of these ideas are my own thinking, my research and the experience of the parents who attended my classes. I used to entitle the class: “Fostering an Attitude of Gratitude”.
- Teach children from the beginning to say “thank you”. Model gratitude by saying thank you to your children and let them hear you express your gratitude to others. Encourage them to write thank you notes. The custom of sending thank you notes is out of vogue in today’s rush-rush society yet it is an act that stirs the heart of many grandparents while teaching an important lesson to child. It is important that the thanks be expressed by the child rather than the parent.
- Generosity is the other side of the coin of gratitude. We give more fully when we are grateful. Encourage generosity by showing your children that giving is a joy. Make gift selection a special event. Help your child think carefully about what the recipient would like. Parents shared their stories of taking a child shopping for a friend’s gift. I recall one saying to a star-struck child, “We are here find a gift for your friend, not for you.” One parent talked about helping her child think carefully about what their friend would like rather than what they themselves would want.
- Another way to encourage generosity is through giving to charity. Help children pack clothes to give to Good Will, bring canned goods to the food-shelf, or select toys they have outgrown to give to needy children. Help them to recognize their good fortune instead of comparing themselves to others who have more than they do.
- Teach children to respect their possessions. This is an important aspect of appreciation. Make caring for toys and clothes part of their training because such possessions are a privilege and they are fortunate to have them. When children break or lose toys because of carelessness, wait before replacing them. Let a child experience the loss for while and give them the opportunity to participate in the replacement or repair.
- Generosity is more than giving of material goods. It also means giving one’s time and talents. Be quick to serve when friends and family need help and don’t complain about being inconvenienced. Volunteer to serve others as a family. Visit an elderly shut in. Serve at the soup kitchen. This will expose children to persons who have special needs as well as providing them with the opportunity to experience the joy of giving. It is important that they see giving as a two-way street. Just as we may give material gifts or service to those in need, they have gifts to give us, too. Open their eyes to these special gifts.
- Hold up those who are examples of generosity. Don’t focus on the wealthy who give. That sometimes sends a message that we give from our surplus only. Note neighbors, friends and relatives who have a spirit of giving. Heroes in literature are another way to hold up those who emulate the values we want to pass on to our children. There are many books and videos that promote the values of gratitude and generosity.
- Help children to see something to be thankful for even in situations that seem dire. If an outing falls through because of rain, talk about how the earth is happy to have nourishment and suggest that you and your child now have time to do some project that you’ve been wanting to do together. Model this attitude of gratitude when situations in your life turn out differently than you’d like. In this economy, I have been blessed to see people express gratitude even as they have lost jobs.
- Don’t overindulge children. If they have less they will treasure what they have more. Provide toys that stimulate their imagination; they will play with them longer. Also purchase toys that reflect your child’s age and interests rather than the latest fad or the toy that was your favorite when you were young.
- Teach children to appreciate God’s natural gifts in nature. Feed a child’s natural curiosity by stopping with them to smell the flowers, listen to the each bird’s unique call, observe the chipmunk’s stuffing his cheeks with nuts, or feel the soft fur of a kitten. .
- “In all things, give thanks,” the scriptures tell us. ALL! Look for the gift in each situation throughout the day. Light traffic, the opportunity to create an interesting meal when the cupboard seems bare, getting a spot out of a favorite shirt, the puppy pooped only twice in the house today instead of yesterday’s three times, finding the piece to a toy behind the couch. Formalize this gratitude by including such expressions of gratitude in meal or night prayers. Or pray in the moment like Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof.
Helping children develop the complimentary attitudes of gratitude and generosity is a gradual process. It takes time for a child to move from the simple ritual of saying “thank you” to Grandma to truly appreciating a gift or favor. Parents need patience with the process. It is helpful for parents to have an understanding of child development where they learn that egocentricity in small children is not only natural but an early survival mechanism. Parents should not shame them for what is normal for their stage of development. But they should continue to nurture them toward the virtues they want them to develop.
Most important, parents need to remember that values are caught more than taught. Telling children to say thank you may influence their behavior but will do little to instill genuine gratitude if parents themselves lack an attitude of gratitude. If we ourselves have a victim mentality, if we operate out of a mindset of lack rather than abundance, this will have the greater impact on our children. When we teach them true gratitude, we offer them a life of joy.