Parenting is hard work. And sometimes the hardest part is maintaining a clear focus on the goal. As a follower of Jesus, my primary goal is to lead my kids to be followers of Jesus. I want them to see him and respond to him with grateful hearts. And so, our attempts to raise thankful kids is rooted in our desire to lead them to respond to the gospel.
Growing in gratitude as a family is more about heart cultivation than behavior modification. We think about it, pray about it, and are trying to be intentional with our boys. But the jury is still out on whether we will have any measure of success in helping our sons develop thankful hearts. While we don’t have what I’d call a comprehensive plan, there are some foundational convictions that guide our efforts.
Here are four practical steps we take as we pursue the development of our kids in the area of thankfulness:
1. Ask God to give you a tender, thankful heart.
Pride, entitlement, bitterness, and discontent quickly choke out humility and gratitude. I must ask God to “create in me a clean heart.” Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” When we truly believe that everything we have and experience is an unearned favor from God, then the overflow (what comes out of our mouths) will be genuine gratitude. And the more I express thanks to God, the more that will produce gratitude toward others. Remember Paul told the Corinthian church, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). The scariest thing about parenting is that our kids often follow our lead. They imitate us. That’s why gratitude has to begin with us.
The root of our discipleship efforts with our kids is directly tied to our own pursuit of discipleship. We won’t be able to lead our kids to anything if we’re not actively pursuing and practicing it ourselves. “Do as I say and not as I do” is not an effective discipleship strategy, unless hypocrisy is what you are going for. The honest truth is that we will never consistently advocate for something in others that we don’t first value for ourselves. Learning to recognize and respond to acts of kindness, small and great, is key to cultivating and maintaining a humble heart.
We won’t be able to lead our kids to anything if we’re not actively pursuing and practicing it ourselves.
2. Make thanksgiving a primary part of your family prayer times.
One of the major things we ask our kids to do when they pray is express thanks to God. Often, we lead them by asking simple questions: What did you enjoy today? What was the best part of your day? This is a critical part of our family prayer times every night. We also use mealtime prayers to genuinely call out the goodness of God. It’s important to acknowledge that what is on the table is God’s doing, his provision. Whether they understand it or not, they need to hear that we are sustained and kept by the goodness of Jesus. During these family prayer times, we repeatedly express gratitude for the gospel. Neither of my sons have surrendered themselves to Jesus, but they regularly articulate thanks for the cross and the sacrifice of Jesus. And I’m hopeful that one day those expressions of gratitude will lead to conviction and repentance.
3. Say “thank you” a LOT as a family!
It’s easy to take things for granted, to assume blessings and kindness. But when we talk about the many good things we experience and express gratitude, we help each other notice generosity. But don’t just focus on current experiences. Recall past grace. Help your kids remember the trail of goodness behind them. The blessings of the past are still worthy of thanksgiving. As parents, we need to say “thank you” to our kids. They need to hear that we appreciate and value their expressions of kindness and care for us and each other. My mother was a huge proponent of writing thank you notes, and we’ve tried to continue that with our boys. Formulating ways to articulate your gratitude in writing drives it further down in your heart. I told my oldest just the other week, “You become what you do.” The more you speak words of thanks, the better chance you have of becoming genuinely thankful.
Requiring our kids to say “thank you” won’t guarantee a grateful heart, but not saying it will surely lead them to thanklessness. Repeating it is a steady reminder that I didn’t do this myself, someone did it for me. I didn’t deserve it or earn it. Saying “thank you” is an acknowledgement of God’s grace, not our goodness.
4. Give them chores and opportunities to serve.
Nothing breeds entitlement quite like having everything handed to you without any effort or responsibility. Our boys can easily think it’s nothing to keep the house clean, the jungle of our yard tamed, and a steady supply of clean clothes in their closet. Giving them responsibility in our home can cultivate a new appreciation that leads to thankfulness. Help your kids find ways to serve each other, and capture opportunities to serve as a family. When you give yourself away for the sake of others, you are reminded of the One who gave himself away for you. And that should cause your heart to erupt with thanks.
God-honoring gratitude is more of a gospel response than a social grace. In every part of our parenting we should be laying a framework for how our kids should respond to God. But if we aren’t careful we can focus on what is socially acceptable and miss the heart of growing in gratitude. We want to lead our kids to recognize the overwhelming goodness of God demonstrated in the gospel and in every good gift we receive. And we want them to respond to others from the overflow of understanding how God has treated us Christ Jesus.
In a culture that’s consumed with outward appearances and social media profiles, we can easily get caught up in making sure our kids act right. When they excel in the social graces it may make us look good, but I am reminded that while we are impressed with outward appearances, God is searching hearts. He’s looking for humble hearts, grateful hearts.