We walked out of the ice cream store in tears. What was meant to be a fun summer treat had turned into a family meltdown. Just five minutes earlier, we had walked into the store all smiles and excitement. However, as I explained to my three children that they were only allowed a single scoop of ice cream (instead of a more expensive treat with lots of toppings mixed in), their faces fell and complaining commenced. As the grumbling grew, I realized it was time for a difficult lesson. “Everyone, back in the car. We’re not getting ice cream today.”
My children looked at me in shock and then in tears. I was crying too. Some lessons are as painful to teach as they are to learn. I wanted to have this fun treat with my children, but my bigger concern was their hearts. If they couldn’t be grateful for a scoop of ice cream because they saw something better, how would they learn thankfulness in a world that’s always enticing them to want more?
Raising grateful children is not an easy endeavor. We live in the midst of a fallen world, so all of life is a mixture of blessings and hardships. Even as adults, we’re tempted to focus on what’s lacking rather than rejoicing in what’s given. We tend to feel entitled to the good and shocked by the hard. However, with the Spirit’s help, we can train our minds to take every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5) and help our children learn thankfulness even when circumstances don’t live up to our expectations or hopes.
One of the first ways we model a life of thankfulness is by expressing it to our children. While it may seem counterintuitive, asking our children to help around the house provides them with opportunities to grow in gratitude (even if there may be some grumbling along the way). Children delight in the praise of their parents. As we say, “Great job!” and “I’m so proud of you!” for their efforts, they learn the importance of showing appreciation to others.
They also learn the work that household tasks require, which makes them more grateful when others serve them. After dinner, my children usually clean all the pots and pans, put away the dishes, and wipe off the counters. Some evenings, when they are busy because of schoolwork or sports, I’ll offer to clean the kitchen for them. Their faces always light up with a deep gratitude—one that they wouldn’t have if I cleaned the kitchen for them every night. They faithfully offer back to me (with hugs and cheers) the thankfulness they’ve received.
Including thankful practices in our daily routines is another way we help our children grow in gratitude. Having children say thank you for a play date, express gratitude for lunch, or write thank-you notes for gifts are simple practices that help children understand the importance of giving thanks. As we read the Bible with our children and teach them to pray, they learn to give thanks to God—the Giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). They can thank Him as Creator for playgrounds, pets, teachers, family, church, and their favorite stuffed animal. They can rejoice in God’s wisdom, power, and mercy as they learn the stories of the Old Testament. They can thank God for His love, grace, and forgiveness as they learn about Jesus.
Our children also learn gratitude from opportunities to give generously. Whether it’s sharing their favorite toy with a friend or putting part of their allowance in the offering plate, as children faithfully give to others, they experience the truth of Jesus’ words: “It’s more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The habits of our homes build habits of gratefulness in their lives.
The most powerful (and perhaps most difficult) way to teach gratitude to our children is by our example. Paul exhorts us: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16–18). Do circumstances rob you of joy? Is grumbling the habit of your home? Are words of thanksgiving often on your lips? The example we set before our children teaches them in ways our words never can.
This world will never satisfy us. It won’t satisfy our children either. As we put our hope in something better, something eternal, something that’s coming, our children will learn from our example. The foundation of our thanksgiving isn’t the goodness of our day but the goodness of our God.