Gratitude is attractive. The grateful person tends to be happier, healthier, and more satisfied with their own life. They have an easier time forgiving others and helping others. They worry less and are less likely to get depressed or stressed. Sounds pretty good, right? Who wouldn’t want to be grateful with that description?
But gratitude doesn’t just happen over night. After becoming a parent, I quickly realized that while it’s relatively easy to teach a child the habit of saying “thank you”, it’s much harder to help them develop the virtue of gratitude.
Gratitude is more than a habit. It’s more than a good desire. Gratitude is a relationship. We are thankful for things, but to people. In order to have an open and grateful heart, a person must have strong relationships. For Christians, the ultimate foundation of all gratitude lies in a relationship with God in which we realize who we are and who God is, and recognize all he freely gives us. Gratitude toward others becomes part of our natural response to God’s goodness; after all, the presence in our lives of other people who love us and care for us is itself a gift from God.
While gratitude has to develop internally, parents can definitely help create conditions that encourage their children to develop this virtue.
Teach good habits from a young age. While habits of thankfulness differ from the virtue of gratitude, the two go hand in hand, and teaching children good habits can pave the way for a grateful heart.
- Get Grateful! offers age-appropriate ideas for helping kids develop good habits related to gratitude.
- Consider using hands-on, tactile, and kinesthetic activities to help your children learn about gratitude.
Make gratitude part of your family culture. A grateful family sets the stage for children to naturally develop gratitude as they grow. Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann has some great advice on how to make gratitude part of your regular family life.
Focus on other virtues. Gratitude naturally gives rise to a number of other virtues. It also presupposes other virtues. Focusing on the virtues below can help your children develop the foundations they need for gratitude to take root in their hearts.
- Love. As mentioned, gratitude presupposes relationship. Helping your child develop strong relationships with family and friends empowers them to recognize all the good things they receive from people who love them.
- Justice. Teach your child to recognize what they owe other people. This will help them develop a sense of justice. When they establish a realistic understanding of what they to are rightly owed as a result of their inherent dignity, they will be in a better position to recognize what is freely given to them, above and beyond what they have merited.
- Freedom. Gratitude can’t be forced. Help your child understand that they are FREE to give and to receive.
- Respect. A person can only be grateful when they have a healthy level of self-respect, AND a healthy level of respect toward the person they receive from.
- Sincerity. Gratitude is a sharing of a person’s heart, and must therefore be rooted in a sincere openness toward others.
- Generosity. Greed, jealousy and envy crowd out gratitude by fostering a false sense of entitlement and superiority. Helping our kids be generous and value good things other people have can help them make room in their heart for thankfulness.
- Wonder. According to GK Chesterton, “(…) gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” A sense of awe at the world around them can help children develop a deeper awareness of God’s presence and how many blessings he gives us each day.
Live a moderate, balanced life. When our homes and lives get cluttered, its easy to feel entitled and forget how much of what we have is gratuitous and unmerited. When a child counts on receiving whatever they want, whenever they want it, it’s tough for them to be grateful. On the other hand, when a child’s needs are met in a balanced manner, it’s easier to recognize and appreciate all the blessings in life.
Help others as a family. Do some form of ministry and outreach, help neighbors, families and friends. Begin inside your own family, by helping each other. Doing good as a family gives others things to be grateful for, and can help your kids become more aware of things others do for them.