At this time of year, many families are renewing annual traditions of teaching their children to be thankful. Some make lists of the things they're thankful for, to be read at the Thanksgiving meal; others may volunteer to serve dinner at a local shelter to those who don't have a kitchen table of their own; still others may invite a friend or neighbor in need to share the day with them.
While these annual traditions are excellent and practical ways of cultivating gratitude in our children, to truly teach the biblical principle of thankfulness takes more than an annual tradition or crash course approach.
Biblical thankfulness isn't limited to a season. It isn't even based on what we have or don't have. True thankfulness is giving thanks to God always and for everything (Ephesians 5:20; Psalm 34:1).
As you celebrate Thanksgiving with your children this year, make a commitment to foster thankful hearts year-round. Just like correctly carving a turkey, being thankful doesn't come naturally. Parents have to teach their children how to be thankful, and introduce practical ways in which children can express their thanks.
1. Be a role model. Provide opportunities for your children to hear you thank God in the good times and in the bad. There is no better way to teach your children to be thankful than by allowing them to see you being thankful. If you're uncertain how to be thankful in the bad times, look to the life of the Apostle Paul who teaches us to "give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 5:18, NIV).
2. Lessen the material load. Less really can be more. When we are so focused on what we want and even on what we need, it's hard to be thankful for what we already have and to keep our focus on God. "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things" (Colossians 3:2).
3. Provide perspective. Expose your children to the reality of true poverty and suffering. During the first years, children truly believe the world revolves around them, their wants and their needs. If we don't introduce our children to the reality of those less fortunate, they won't grow into grateful adults who have a burning desire to help alleviate the suffering of others.
4. Count your blessings. "Praise the Lord. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; His love endures forever" (Psalm 106:1). Consciously take note of the things God has done and is doing in your life, and give thanks. Share your observations with your children. Encourage your children to share the ways God has blessed them.
5. Differentiate between wants and needs. We truly need very few things in life. These include food, shelter, clothing and companionship. We often lose sight of the difference between our wants and our needs. When we do, it can open the door to ungratefulness. Younger children can be taught the difference by identifying some purchases as things we have to have, and others as things that are nice to have.
6. Distinguish privileges from rights. Having a cell phone or taking music lessons is a privilege, a special benefit enjoyed by our children above and beyond their basic rights (the right to eat, the right to sleep). Parents are responsible to provide for rights. Providing an opportunity for our children to earn and keep their privileges, perhaps by doing chores, can foster a deeper appreciation of the extra blessings they enjoy, and the value of money.
7. Encourage ownership and responsibility. When children feel like something truly belongs to them, they are more likely to appreciate it. When they purchase something or care for it on their own, they are better able to understand the concept of earning, spending, and responsibility. Together, these increase their level of appreciation for time and money because they personally become connected to their investments.
8. Develop the art of appreciation. Coaching your children to express gratefulness with words and actions can help them learn practical ways to show appreciation. Saying thank you or sending a handmade thank-you note to acknowledge a kind word or deed is a practical way children can be taught to show appreciation.
9. Recognize God's involvement in your family's life. Once we let God into our lives, He is with us always (Revelation 3:20). Acknowledge and thank God for the hand He has had in your family's life, and express to your children that you trust God to meet your needs.
10. Instill the concept of servant leadership. Servant leadership is simply serving others and putting their needs above your own (John 13). In today's world, where people are encouraged to fight their way to the top and disregard the needs of others to get there, teaching children to meet the needs of others can help them appreciate what they have and what they are able to contribute.
11. Teach personal appreciation. True gratitude focuses on the gift giver, rather than the gift. Sometimes the little gifts we get in life require a big sacrifice from the giver. "Wasn't that great that Grandma thought of you on your birthday? She doesn't have much, but she chose to share what she has with you." Encourage your children to appreciate the gesture behind the gift.
12. Make time to give thanks. Set aside time each day to give God thanks. While children can be encouraged to give thanks throughout the day, having a set time or two of thanksgiving will foster a habit that your children will carry over into adulthood.
Teaching our children the biblical principle of thankfulness and practical ways to express it year-round will help them grow into adults who appreciate who God is and who He created them to be. It will also help them stay focused on what they have when Satan tries to shift their focus to things God wants to protect them from (Genesis 3:1-7). Remember, "Godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Timothy 6:6).
MICHELLE LaROWE CONOVER is author of the Nanny to the Rescue! parenting series, A Mom's Ultimate Book of Lists, and Working Mom's 411: How to Manage Kids, Career and Home. She and her husband Jeff, reside on Cape Cod with their daughter Abigail and their son Luke.