Teaching children to be grateful and generous.
On Christmas morning, after devouring Mom's legendary homemade sticky buns, the Stevens family gathers around the Christmas tree. The three kids — Danny, 10, Molly, 8 and Christopher, 6 — excitedly begin opening their presents.
Their parents' joy soon turns to dismay as they observe the children's behavior. Like hungry sharks in a feeding frenzy, Danny, Molly and Christopher greedily rip open each gift only to toss it aside, searching for another package bearing their names.
Particularly troubling to Sharon and Rick Stevens is that none of the kids acknowledges the relatives who sent the gifts in the first place. They show zero interest in opening the cards attached to the gifts. After each child opens the final gift, all three continue to search for still more presents, making comments such as "Is that all I get?" or "How come Molly got more presents than I did?"
Unfortunately, the Stevens' experience is common. In a materialistic, consumer oriented culture, we face a real challenge in teaching thankfulness and contentment to children. They are conditioned to believe they are entitled to everything they want — now! Kids have also come to believe they should always get the biggest and best.
The Center for a New American Dream reports another disturbing trend known as the nag factor. Its recent surveys found that nearly 60 percent of kids nag their parents for a toy or a privilege even after being given a no. In fact, 10 percent of all 12- and 13-year-olds admit they will beg their parents more than 50 times for products they've seen on TV.
Christian parents are called to cultivate character traits such as thankfulness, generosity and self-sacrifice. The Bible commands us, "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Jesus warns us, "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15). And Paul describes greedy people as idolaters who will not inherit the kingdom of God (Ephesians 5:5).
One of the most effective ways to combat the cultural mind-set is by modeling a grateful attitude. Verbally thank God on a regular basis, even for simple things like a roof over your head and food.
Also, do your best to model gratitude in your other relationships: friends, relatives and co-workers — and not only when they do something special for you. Let others know how much you appreciate them simply for who they are. Express that kind of unconditional gratitude to your spouse and children as well.
You can help your kids learn to be generous by serving others who are less fortunate. Christmastime is ideal for service projects. Your family might volunteer to serve Christmas dinner at a local rescue mission or visit residents at a nursing home, singing carols and delivering Christmas cookies.
The majority of children receive a boatload of new toys each year. They soon lose interest in most of these toys, which wind up collecting dust in a closet, basement or storage bin. One family I know has instituted a Christmas tradition in which each of their kids chooses several of his or her old toys to donate to a homeless shelter or a local charity. They deliver the toys as a family the week before Christmas, so their children can see where their toys are being donated and experience the joy of giving away their possessions.
Christmas also provides an excellent opportunity to start sponsoring a poor child in a developing country through an organization such as World Vision or Compassion International. Our family sponsors a little girl in Indonesia. When our children are old enough, we plan to take a short-term missions trip to Java to meet her.
Finally, while your kids are still on vacation, set aside an afternoon for them to write handmade thank-you notes to the friends and relatives who gave them gifts. Even young children can participate by decorating simple cards with crayons, stickers and rubber stamps. Make this a family project, as you help your children learn to develop the "language of gratitude" through words and pictures.
This article first appeared in the December, 2006 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. Copyright © 2006 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.