Usually the picture of serenity, Maria stomped into our Moms in Touch prayer group. "I hate my children," she stormed. "They're so ungrateful!"
Her anger startled us, but we could empathize with her feelings. At times I am appalled at how much my children receive and how little they truly appreciate. Gratitude is in short supply today, even in loving, Christian families.
If I could guarantee a few things that my children would carry into adulthood, one would be a grateful heart. Gratitude is essential to a deep, maturing faith in God because it defines who we are, who God is, and what we expect of life. It's the "tail of the kite" to a life that soars with God.
Satan knows this, which explains why he tries to divert our attention away from all that God has given us. Instead, he wants us to focus on all the things we think we lack (see Genesis 3:1–7). Focusing on what we lack is the root of ungratefulness.
In contrast, focusing on what we have received from God brings not only gratitude but also lasting happiness. It increases our faith in God and our overall sense of well-being. Who wouldn't want these benefits for their children?
But I'm discovering that instilling thankfulness in our children is a long-term project. Obviously my family isn't finished yet, but we've stumbled onto ten key principles that have made a big difference.
1. Practice What You Preach
As with everything else in life, kids learn best by example. Often I realize I've missed an opportunity to express and model gratitude. I'm trying to make this a higher priority—promptly writing thank-you notes, reciprocating a favor. When I get too busy for thoughtful gestures, then I know I'm too busy.
2. Give Your Kids Less
This is probably the most effective way to get our children to appreciate more. Two years ago my family moved to Hong Kong for my husband's work. We live in an apartment that has limited living and storage space. Hong Kong is also the most expensive city in the world. As a result, our buying habits are now based on need, with few luxuries.
To my surprise and delight, we all like living with less. The children appreciate their possessions more, and there is less clutter. My 15-year-old has become a savvy consumer. She is cautious with new purchases and takes extremely good care of her possessions—even ironing her jeans. (She insists they look new when ironed.)
Even if you can afford it, don't buy gifts habitually for your kids. It may make you feel generous, but children quickly feel entitled to treats and start expecting them.
3. Get a New Perspective
Encounters with those who have less can sensitize your child to some of the pain and suffering in the world. It also helps kids realize how fortunate they are.
Each summer the Marquardt family of Lutherville, Maryland, looks for opportunities for their daughters to help on a mission project. "It doesn't have to be in a Third World country," says Lisa Marquardt. "Our church has youth programs that help inner-city or low-income families. Both girls have benefited tremendously by participating in these missions."
4. Learn to Count
When Clayton of Geneva, Illinois, says prayers with his daughter A.J., he includes one thing to be grateful for from that day: sunshine, a cozy bed, a new friend. He tries to find things A.J. can relate to in her day-to-day life because, he says, "the big stuff—health, happiness—is too big a concept for her at age seven."
As you say prayers at night, count up five blessings of the day—one for each finger. The younger the child, the simpler the blessing.
5. Make the Most of Holidays
If you didn't get around to it last Thanksgiving, use New Year's Day or the month of January to make an inventory of your blessings. Start the ball rolling by asking your kids leading questions: Do you have good food on the table? Clothes to wear? Toys to play with? Family and friends who love you? Then pause and thank God for his great gifts. Keep this list on the fridge, add to it, enjoy it.
6. Separate Privileges from Rights
After years of campaigning, 11-year-old Becca of Danville, California, finally talked her mom, Debbie, into letting her take horseback riding lessons. "Becca, there's one thing you need to understand," Debbie told her. "These lessons are so costly I'll need to take on a few new piano students to pay for them. I'm willing to do this, but I will need you to do additional chores around the house. If you don't hold up your end, then the lessons will stop."
That was more than a year ago, and Becca has done her part admirably. Debbie laid out clear guidelines that her daughter could understand—about sacrifice, appreciation, and the value of money—without guilt or martyrdom on Debbie's part. With that approach, kids perceive privileges, such as horseback riding lessons, as gifts, not rights.
7. Harness the Power of Ownership
My friend Kim has trained her daughter to earn her own money to pay for extras. "When we are shopping," says Kim, "and the 'I want, I need, I have to have' sentences come up, then I can ask: 'Do you have enough money to buy it?' The sense of ownership and gratitude is much greater when she spends her own money."
8. Tell Kids What You Expect
A few months after getting my driver's license, my mom became annoyed with me for never filling up the car with gas. I was shocked—I never knew I should have! It just doesn't occur to most kids to show appreciation without a little prompting from their parents. Gestures like thanking the host for being invited to a party or writing a thank-you note to Grandma are taught and modeled. It is a rare child who intuitively knows how to express such appreciation.
9. Recognize the Spiritual Battle
Scripture repeatedly exhorts us to worship, praise, and give thanks to God—in every circumstance. Thanking God for his involvement in our day-to-day concerns keeps us focused on him, helping us avoid Satan's insidious distractions.
Twelve-year-old Jordan of Moraga, California, was in the car on his way to a swim meet. He was talking to his brother about a boy on the team who is an excellent swimmer. "He brags a lot, but he's so good he deserves to brag," stated Jordan.
His mom overheard and dived right in: "No, Jordan, he does not deserve to brag. He has a gift. Who do you think gave him the gift to swim so fast? True, this boy works at it, but God gave him that body to swim."
Saying grace at dinner time and prayers at bedtime are ideal moments to encourage the habit of thanking God. As one dad said, "We put Satan in his place every time we give thanks to God."
10. Enjoy the Payoff
For the last few years, my friend Lisa has chosen a family theme for the year. For instance, 1997 was "1990-servant." As a family they worked on treating each other with a more servantlike attitude. Last year was "1990-grateful." According to Lisa, "It sounds a little corny, but it reminded us to be more thankful."
Cultivating the habit of gratitude takes effort, but it yields rich dividends. As the psalmist proclaimed: "O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever" (Psalm 30:12). A thankful heart and the ability to express gratitude make a dramatic difference in our children's relationship to others and especially in their relationship to God.
Suzanne Woods Fisher and her husband, Stephen, live in Hong Kong with their four children.
Copyright © 1999 by Suzanne Woods Fisher and Christianity Today