Question: My children seem complain all the time about not having this or that. How do I teach them to be grateful for what they have?
Answer: By nature, because of the fall of Adam and Eve, we are all selfish (Gen. 6:5) and self seeking. Therefore, we are by nature ungrateful and unappreciative for what we have. In Exodus, after Moses led the Isrealites out of the wilderness, the Israelites began to murmur against God, being ungrateful for what they had. It doesn't help that we live in a country where we have so many freedoms that we take them granted. The Isrealites, also, took God for granted. This attitude can infiltrate our own lives and this we sometimes pass on to our children. Our own attitudes and actions can lead them in the wrong direction.
This direction is toward discontentment and into physical, emotional, and mental health problems. Emmons and McCullough (2003, Measuring the Grateful Disposition section, para. 2-5) explained how grateful people thought and felt. Using this information, I found that ungrateful people tend to experience higher levels of negative emotions, are dissatisfied with their lives, are not optimistic, are more depressed, and experience more stress than grateful people. Also, ungrateful people are less empathetic, less generous, and less helpful; are envious, stingy, and materialistic. To lessen the likelihood of my children experiencing these problems, I will do everything I can to make them more grateful.
Let us look into what God's says about being grateful. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, "give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." He tells us to be thankful in ALL circumstances, not just when times are good. Our thankfulness is dependent on what God has done for us, not on our circumstances. Earlier this year, my husband , my three children, and I experienced a severe ice storm and we lost our electic, our phone and our heat . We were forced out of our house. We ended up driving two hours away to our hometown to stay with family until our electric was restored. We could've grumbled about the poor circumstance, but instead ,we were thankful the we were all safe, that we had family that we could go to in this time of trouble and that we had a reliable vehicle to take us to our family.
The same verse tells us why we are to give thanks. It is because it is God's will for our lives. It is God's will for us to express appreciation to Him for everything he has done. Being thankful brings good health and God's favor. Steve Duncan (2003, para. 3-4) reports "..a pervading attitude of gratitude is so fundamental that it is a cornerstone of mental and physical health... A positive, appreciative attitude is basic not only to good mental health but also to all-around success." God's desire for us is to be mentally and physically healthy and successful (Jer 29:11). These are the same things we desire for our children.
How do we teach gratitude?
It is our responsibility as parents "to train a child the way he should go, and when he is old will not turn from it." (Prov. 22:6). Here are some practical applications to the question at hand.
1. Give personal examples from your own life
Share with them how things were when you were their age. When I was young, I only had my physical needs met since my father was an alcholic and my mother no longer lived with me. My children are fortunate to have their mother at home with them and a father and mother who can provide them with more than just the physical needs. I remind them of how fortunate they are. They should be thankful.
2. Give examples from their lives
Remind them about the tough time you went through. I remind my children about the ice storm. How we had family to go to and how we were all kept safe.
3. Give a hands on lesson
Recently our family was on a tight budget for one week. We bought foods for survival only - rice pasta, milk, bread, small amount of cheese, cheapest meat in store, and ramen noodles. We also made a soup from the left over turkey from Thanksgiving. The kids whined about not having what they wanted. We told them about other children that had even less than we. We also told them to be thankful for what they had, even if it didn't seem like much.
To teach your children a lesson, use the example above and taylor it to your schedule. You may substitute the food idea and take away something that is valuable to your children. Younger children, 5 and under, may not completely understand the concept, but it will plant some seeds of thankfulness. Older children should learn that they have more than they need. They will learn to not take what they have for granted and be thankful.
4. Show them appreciation
"...write a letter to each of them, separately. (Write even if they are young. They’ll treasure it some day.) ...Identify their strengths and encourage them with appreciative comments on those positive characteristics." (Winters, 2003, Thankful Notes section, para. 2)
You could also thank them, directly, for everything they do and tell them that you appreciate them.
5. Model thankful behavior
This is most important. You could 1) pray in front of them: thank God for what He has done 2) praise God in front of them: praise Him for being there when you need Him 3) give to another in need: give food to the local food bank, ask your friends if they need help. 4) show others appreciation: write thank you notes, tell others that you appreciate them.
By giving examples and lessons (points 1 through 3 of the suggestions above), I've noticed that my daughter, who is 4 years old, is not as picky at the dinner table. She also realizes that she can't always have what she wants. At times she does forget to be thankful so I promptly remind her of the others who do not have what we have - She almost always immediately calms down, acknowledges my point and accepts what she does have in front of her.
I've found that showing appreciation (point 4 above) to be particularly important since my daughter and I continue to reinforce each others appreciative behavior. Instead of writing to her, I show appreciation directly. I find that after showing appreciation to her she lights up. She then shows appreciation back to me by saying "please" and "thank you" and then I let her know how I appreciate her good manners. I show appreciation her and she shows appreciation to me - back-and-forth we go. This is a continuing cycle so you can see why this point is important to us.
In modeling thankful behavior, point 5, I've found that my daughter seems to want to help others more. She asks me if we can give things and food to her friends and her younger siblings. She even at times wants to pray by herself at the dinner table to thank God for the food and her family, etc.
To sum it up, we are by nature selfish and evil; therefore, ungrateful. Due to this, children have become at risk to be unsuccessful, and unhealthy physically and mentally. Since God tells us to give thanks in all circumstances good or bad, that is, we appreciate Him for what he has done, we, as parents or guardians, are responsible for training our children by modeling appropriate behavior, giving them lessons, sharing our own experiences with them and showing them appreciation. Being grateful is one of the best things you can do for a healthy and successful life.
Duncan, S. (2003). Family Matters: Develop and "Attitude of Gratitude". Retrieved December 29, 2003 from Montana
State University, Bozeman Communication Services Website: http://www.montana.edu/wwwpb/home/grats.html
Emmons, R.A., McCullough, M.E. (2003) Highlights from the Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness:
Dimensions and Perspective of gratitude. Retrieved December 29, 2003 from University of California, Davis,
Psychology Department Website: http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/labs/emmons
Winters, J. (2003). 6 Creative Ways to Develop Gratitude. Retrieved December 29, 2003 from