3 Ways to Teach Kids (And Yourself) Gratitude: An Experiment

I am a mom of two girls, and I am running an experiment. I am trying to teach my children gratitude. High on the list, I want them say thank you and show thankfulness.

How am I doing?

This morning, my 2 and a half year old threw herself on the ground in protest of a red bow I wanted to put in her hair.

Also, when I asked my 6 year about gratitude, she said gratitude was “when you’re mad about something". She was mixing up this word with “attitude.” (As in “You had better fix that attitude, young lady.”)

I’m clearly nailing this teaching-thankfulness thing.

My two girls and I during a day outing

So, that’s why I call this an experiment. My kids are not perfect, and I am not a perfect parent. They’re also young, which means that I am still in the beginning phases of learning on-the-job. But, I’m trying. I want my girls to treasure faith, love, and thankfulness because those soul-deep values have enriched my life during both the best and worst of times.

I hope gratitude becomes the lens through which they see everything, because gratitude is the key to joy.

“It is always possible to be thankful for what is given rather than to complain about what is not given. One or the other becomes a habit of life.” - Elisabeth Elliot

And, to be honest, I’m not perfect at this gratitude thing either. So, the experiment starts with me. Kids pick up on the words we say and the things we do more easily than I’d like to think, so the best thing I can do to cultivate thankfulness in my little ones is to look for ways I can be thankful.

So, here’s where my girls are I are starting. I've put up reminders to practice these 3 small acts.

First, be happy with what we have.

We want new stuff, more stuff, better stuff. Sometimes those things are tangible: homes, cars, gadgets, clothes. Sometimes, they are abstract: jobs, talents, relationships, other people’s entire lives. It starts as kids, when we covet the toy our friend picks up, even if we haven’t touched it in months.

It’s envy that creates bitterness and clouds out joy. So, we fight envy and claim joy by focusing on the good things we already have.

“The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the Lord.” Psalm 24:1

Nothing is truly ours; it is all a gift.

The best way to focus on the gifts we have been given? Take care of those things.

My girls don’t care about the toys they’ve thrown to the side after moving through the playroom like miniature tornadoes. The toys they really care about are the ones they set in special places and keep out of reach of wild friends and Sharpie markers.

My girls are excited to make cookies

So, maybe we declutter and put some effort into caring for the things we choose to keep. I am working on doing less for them and teaching them how to care for their own things and the things we collectively have as a family. Short-term comfort is an easy thing to assuage, but I want long-term joy for my girls.

The grown-up version of this is pretty similar. Declutter. Figure out what really matters, and then care for those things—both the tangible and intangible. To be thankful for my home, I can think of easy ways to organize and freshen it up so it is a space I enjoy. To be thankful for my family and friends, I have to pick up the phone, write a kind note, and invest some time. To feel gratitude for my marriage, I pour in attentiveness, understanding, and grace.

Second, be grateful for the things we don’t want.

Practical gifts are the worst—socks, underwear, cleaning supplies. This kind of present might be what I need, but I’d really rather unwrap a fun new gadget or concert tickets.

It’s the moments in life when God gives me the things I don’t want—on occasion, the exact opposite of what I have been asking for—that I find it hardest to be grateful. Ironically, it is usually the gifts I balk at the most that teach me the best things.

So, we practice joy in the small disappointments so that we can grasp onto joy in the big defeats.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, when you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4

For my kids, a lot of this starts with me. I will not work to ensure that my kids always win. I will, however, be there to help show them how to face failure and grief as life teaches its lesson. I will point them to my God who makes them braver and more complete with each hardship they encounter.

As for myself, I will lean on the things that God has done in order to give me hope when He does something I do not understand. He has a talent for using the greatest pain for the greatest good, and I will remember His grace.

Third, see the best in people.

My kids were arguing the other day, and my older one tried making up to her sister by handing over the toy that started the fighting.

The little one’s response? She chunked the doll across the room. (I told you I was really winning at this parenting thing.)

Now, granted, she is two. But, after doling out consequences, I started thinking. I do this too.

The rare sweet moment I capture on camera =)

When I expect the worst out of the gift-giver, they can never win. If my heart is bitter and hard towards someone, then I can take offense at even the most ordinary of gifts, actions, and comments. But, when we assume the best motives, our hearts ripen for genuine thankfulness.

So, we start naming the motives out loud and often, and talk about the thoughtfulness of other people. We practice doing the thing I hated doing as a shy kid: looking someone straight in the eye to say “please” or “thank you.” We work on minding our manners not for the sake of politeness, but because it is kind.

As an adult, I can do this too. When I get frustrated, I can cool my anger by practicing empathy.

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” Colossians 3:15

Paul didn’t randomly throw in the thankfulness bit as an afterthought. When we aim for peace with all the people we encounter, gratitude is the natural byproduct.

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So, how is my experiment coming?

Ask me in 15 years. In the meantime, I will be collecting wisdom and praying a lot. Truthfully, I can do only so much as a parent to shape my kids. There is a lot I can control—including myself—but there is a lot that I must leave to the Lord. I thank the Lord for His constant goodness and grace.

I love this Abide prayer which reminds us to express thanks to God and others.

How do you practice gratitude with your family?