We’ve all been there, right? Those moments of frustration and embarrassment when our seemingly ungrateful children frown at a birthday present or complain of boredom on an extravagant family vacation.
You wonder if anyone is listening to all of the thank-you reminders and discussions of family blessings. Don’t fear. You’re not alone.
Gratitude is a value learned over time—and it will take time. When we, as adults, struggle to ward off feelings of jealousy and ungratefulness, we can’t expect our children to master an immediate attitude of gratitude either. Don’t be discouraged. With patience and repetition, you can raise children who appreciate the blessings in their lives—for the rest of their lives.
Here are some ideas to get you started.
In addition to helping you focus on the positives in your life, maintaining a thankful attitude can have lifelong benefits.
“Research has shown that people who have a greater sense of gratitude are happier and have less stress and depression,” says Susan Quamme, Cass County Extension parent educator at NDSU, Fargo. “Research has also shown that teens who have a grateful attitude have better social, emotional, and academic outcomes.”
Choosing to be grateful also helps build empathy.
“Empathy for others and their situations allows us to treat them with more kindness, since we can understand how they might feel,” adds Quamme, who is the mother of two teenage girls. “If children don’t have empathy, they can only see the world from their point of view and may not care if they hurt another person.”
Gratitude and empathy foster a desire to be kind and help others, too. “Being grateful keeps us mindful and aware of the world around us, thinking outside of ourselves,” says mom Melissa Lynnes, who lives in Leonard, N.D., with her husband, Michael, and their four children ages 7 to 17. “Having an attitude of gratitude helps instill humility and promotes a desire to serve others.”
Children can learn to express their gratitude at a very early age.
Katherine and Joe Halvorson of Moorhead remember teaching their youngest daughter sign language for “thank you” before she could even speak. Little ones may need lots of prompts and reminders to learn to say thank you, but as they get older, they will respond on their own. Encourage eye contact and a smile. Reinforce their efforts by asking your children how they feel when someone kindly thanks them. Help them see how they can make others feel the same way.
Halvorson encourages her daughters, ages 8 and 12, to express their appreciation with thank-you notes and small gifts, too. “It’s fun to surprise the swimming lesson teacher with a box of cookies and a card the girls have made,” she says. “We have tried to expand from simply saying thank you to helping them find meaningful ways to express gratitude through their words and actions.”
One of the best ways to introduce gratitude is by modeling it to your children.
Halvorson participates with her daughters in the thank-you process. “I love helping collect $5 from families in my girls’ theatre productions so the cast can present the directors with flowers and a gift. It’s so life-giving to honor and recognize those people who make a positive impact in our lives.”
Michele Gedgaud, a toddler teacher at Nokomis Child Care Center in Fargo, says kids can learn so much from watching their parents. “Be a role model,” she says. “If a child says he needs a better toy, you can role model that you would like a bigger house, but that you are thankful for this house. Show that you are happy with what you have.”
Quamme agrees. “I believe that gratitude should be a daily, minute-by-minute practice in everyone’s life,” she says. “When I show gratitude for all the things in my life—the trivial, the important, and even the struggles—I teach my children how to be grateful.”
Helping children serve others is a natural next step.
Very small children can share a toy or hug a friend who is sad. Toddlers can help you fold laundry or pick out a few toys to donate. Elementary kids can help your family serve a meal at church or a shelter. They could hold a lemonade stand for a charity or help at a food bank. Teenagers can volunteer at an animal shelter, shovel the driveway for an elderly neighbor, or babysit for a family.
“Serving one another in various ways is a great way to use our gifts from God,” says Matt Peterson, education pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church, Moorhead. “Children are exceptionally eager to do service to their neighbors. Allowing them to think outside of themselves is key in fostering gratitude.”
Don’t get bogged down by the details. A plan to serve others may be a regularly scheduled event or a spontaneous gesture when the timing feels right. You can do things together as a family, but also seek ways for your children to serve others on their own.
For Jana Solhjem and husband Troy of McLeod, N.D., service includes helping out at their church and other ministries. They search out ways for their seven children, ages 4 to 17, to help others. “It allows our kids to see the blessing of giving out of the abundance we have been given,” Solhjem says. “It gives them the reminder that the world is bigger than just them.”
Understanding the difference between needs and wants is a valuable lesson when learning about gratitude. Limiting commercials and other me-focused media in your home can help.
Lynnes noticed that too much media has a negative effect on her children and even herself.
“It’s easy to think that the cool toy or gadget advertised will bring joy into our lives. I know because I can quickly fall into that trap myself,” Lynnes says. “Then it becomes a great opportunity to discuss the difference between wanting and needing something,”
Halvorson agrees. “Honestly, a key element in our parenting is to limit television,” she says. “This minimizes the messages we all hear about the need for bigger and better.”
Being grateful and never greedy isn’t always easy. “We all have times when we are self-centered and focused on our own needs and wants,” Halvorson says. “By sharing my own weakness and how I’m trying to improve, I hope my daughters learn to recognize and reflect on their own challenges and opportunities for growth.”
Count Your Blessings
Finally, you can help children grow in gratitude by counting their blessings.
Gedgaud suggests starting a gratitude jar in your home, a perfect project for kids of all ages. Ask your kids what they are thankful for and write their answers down on slips of paper. Fill your jar with all of your blessings. You could also write their answers on cutout shapes and tape them to a wall for a bigger visual. It’s all about surrounding your family with your blessings.
“It’s not just something for Thanksgiving,” she says. “You can do this all year.”
You can also write your blessings in a journal, known as a gratitude journal. Artist Nichole Rae of Moorhead writes daily in her own gratitude journal and teaches workshops for others interested in the process. Each evening, she reflects on the moments, happenings, people, and things she is grateful for.
“At the end of the day, gratitude journaling allows me to truly see all of the things that I have accomplished, all the beautiful little happenings and how my life is filled with miracles,” she says.
She suggests starting a family journal that both parents and children write in together—maybe just before or after dinner. Each child could also have their own journal, kept in their bedrooms. Take a few minutes before bed to help them record. Young children can draw pictures or dictate their blessings to you.
Lynnes started a similar process after reading One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp. The book encourages readers to find gratitude in everything around them, even during the hard times.
“When I take a few minutes at the beginning of each day to write down five to 10 things I am grateful for, my entire mood and perspective facing that day often changes for the better,” Lynnes says.
Don’t Give up
As you work more gratitude into your family life, don’t try to take on everything at once. Start slowly with gentle reminders to say thank you. Pick a small service project, such as donating food to a food bank. As it becomes more natural, try adding a gratitude jar to your dinner table.
Most of all, model gratitude yourself and be patient.
“I would say, don’t get discouraged. Stay the course,” Solhjem says. “Know that the little ways you are teaching gratitude will pay off in the long run. Parenting is a journey. If you are modeling it, encouraging it, and teaching it, it will eventually sink in.”
Amanda Peterson is an award-winning writer who loves to tell people’s stories. She lives in Moorhead with her husband, Jason, and two children.
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