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Teaching Kids to Be Thankful

“A grateful heart is a beginning of greatness. It is an expression of humility. It is a foundation for the development of such virtues as prayer, faith, courage, contentment, happiness, love, and well-being.” – James E. Faust

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

My father knew the importance of teaching kids to be thankful.

From the time I was in third grade until my senior year in high school, I was a newspaper delivery boy. Throughout my years delivering newspapers, my dad would get up and help me roll the newspapers. Whenever he offered help to his children, my dad emphasized our need to say “thank you.” I’ll never forget when my dad taught me a foundational lesson on gratitude.

One cold winter morning, I woke up late and in a panic. I had forgotten to set my alarm and realized I would not make it to school on time. I ran to my parents’ bedroom and said, “Dad, I woke up late, and the newspapers aren’t rolled!”

Calmly, he rolled over in bed and stated, “You didn’t say ‘thank you’ yesterday. I won’t be helping you this morning. You’ll get it done.”

Then he rolled back over to go back to sleep. Emotionally, it must’ve been brutal for my dad. He loved helping us, and I know he didn’t want me to be late to school. However, he noticed that a more important lesson needed to be taught at that moment.

Gratitude Through Everyday Lessons

Teaching your kids to be thankful is critical for their development relationally, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Teaching genuine and steadfast gratitude is challenging in a world where you can get almost anything on demand. Our culture constantly tries to drive a wedge between Jesus, truth, and reality. That’s why it is essential to start teaching gratitude early and in all things — big and small.

Author Robert Brault encourages us that noticing little blessings leads to appreciating what truly matters: “Enjoy the little things. For one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” – Robert Brault

From an early age, children are surrounded by messages that train them to be consumers of things and people. They’re led to believe that they deserve happiness.

Unfortunately, these messages create prideful and entitled perceptions in some children — as if they deserve what they have and that happiness is their right regardless of the expense.

Spiritual Foundations of Teaching Kids to be Thankful

The great news is God knows how we are made.

He knows that a grateful heart does not come naturally to us. It is something that is shaped in us along the way. Beautifully, gratitude can be taught in the day-to-day as a spiritual discipline that is modeled and shared.

It all begins with a heart that pursues a relationship with Him.

Psalm 103:2-5 instructs: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

You and I must intentionally direct our souls and households in this direction.

Practical Tips for Teaching Gratitude at Every Age

Here are five quick things you can begin doing to foster a culture of gratitude at each age and stage of your children’s development as you practice intentionality:

  • Teach the difference between a right and a privilege. This understanding helps kids recognize what they have instead of getting stuck on what they need. James 1:17 could not be clearer: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
  • Highlight the discipline and trait of humility. Humility helps cultivate a thankful perspective and attitude toward life. It also allows children to see beyond their own needs and wants. Philippians 2:3-4 says, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” A humble heart is a thankful heart.
  • Model gratitude by saying “thank you” often and freely expressing grateful thoughts you have throughout the day. Gratitude is one of the Seven Traits of Effective Parenting (take the assessment here). It helps you be present, attuned, adaptive, and attentive. Your kids are watching and learning how to respond to life through how you react to things. Work on being aware of your attitude and how you respond to what life brings your way throughout the day.  

Colossians 3:16-17 provides excellent instruction for cultivating thankfulness in your behaviors as an overflow of your heart: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Teaching Kids Gratitude: A Daily Practice

  • Talk about what each of you is thankful for throughout the year. It’s like working out, but mentally. You are working out your gratitude mental muscles by discussing it daily. One practical way to do this is by placing a posterboard where the whole family can access it. On the poster board, each person can write a new and different thing they are thankful for each day. Challenge your family members to get more than 365 different things on the poster board in one year. Psalm 106:1 points us to gratitude and God as the source of all goodness. “Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (It goes on to illustrate how easy it is for us to forget.)
  • Be generous. Giving helps your children experience God’s heart. It allows them to see beyond themselves and to experience happiness. Neuroscientists have discovered that generosity fosters personal happiness and begins expressing itself throughout the toddler years. Generosity helps young kids learn to love others. Hebrews 13:16 says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifice is pleasing to God.” Generosity mirrors God’s loving heart.

The Lifelong Journey of Teaching Kids Gratitude

Creating a culture of gratitude in your home takes patience, consistency, and persistence — but the investment is worth it!

In fact, studies confirm that gratitude helps people have better physical, mental, and relational health. Every day offers an excellent opportunity to “reset” gratitude in your home. Since appreciation can help you be more loving and to experience God more deeply, it needs to become a priority in your family.

The bottom line for you as a mom or dad is not perfection, but getting creative and working hard to foster gratitude year-round instead of just at Thanksgiving.

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