How to Nurture Gratitude in the Hearts of Our Children

Growing up as a missionary kid in France had its perks, and the local bakery (or boulangerie) was one of them. Bread is a staple in French culture, and each town or village boasted at least one boulangerie. Its primary purpose was to provide a variety of freshly baked breads, for which the locals shopped daily. In the front counter space were pastries of all sorts, elegant creations low on sugar and high on butter. Bins lining the wall boasted candy you could purchase by the gram, my favorite after school indulgence.

Once or twice a week, my dad would buy a fresh baguette for us to enjoy at breakfast. We sliced off chunks, cut them in half down the middle, and slathered jam over the top. On this particular day, my dad and I walked hand in hand to the boulangerie to pick up an afternoon treat. I froze in front of the window as I noticed a giant chocolate castle on display. It had several chocolate turrets with arched doorways. It had bricks etched into it and chocolate vines creeped over the sides. Intricate details in contrasting colors were made with milk chocolate and dark chocolate. It was wider than the wingspan of my outstretched arms. Upon entering, I realized that it was not just a work of art, it smelled like heaven.

While my dad made small talk with the lady behind the counter, I continued to stare at the drool-worthy castle. I couldn’t believe how big it was. I fantasized about biting off the tip of a turret. The woman at the cash register interrupted my reverie. “Would you like a chance to win the castle? We’re giving it away!” My dad laughed good naturedly. “Sure! Why not?” He picked a number – 17 – and dropped it into a clear bowl. 

Imagine my surprise a few days later when we got a phone call letting us know that we had won the chocolate castle. I couldn’t believe our luck! The delectable masterpiece sat on our dining room table, covering nearly half of it. It infused the whole first floor with its intoxicating scent. No one was quite sure how to enjoy it. We admired it, stared at it from a respectable distance, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat it. Taking a bite would have ruined the castle and no one was willing to be the first invader. 

Giving from our abundance

After a few days of enjoying the sight and smell of our chocolate castle, my dad decided it would be best to give it away to folks who would actually eat it. He loaded it carefully into the trunk of our car while I clambered into the front seat. I smiled when we pulled into the driveway of the children’s hospital. The lady at the reception desk burst into a disbelieving laugh when she saw my dad walk through the door, the castle blocking his line of sight. Other staff members gathered around the table to admire it, impressed with the intricate chocolate details amongst the turrets and archways. They thanked us, assured us that the kids wouldn’t let any of it go to waste, and we left. 

I didn’t regret my dad’s decision. Even with the biggest sweet tooth of our family, I recognized that the same great joy I felt when receiving the castle was the same joy I felt when we gave it away as a blessing to others. 

It is this same heart of gratitude that I want to cultivate in my two young boys. In a culture that is obsessed with personal advancement, the accumulation of wealth and status, and the pursuit of success, I want my children to love and serve others from a grateful heart. 

An uphill battle

A few years ago, my four-year-old son made an off-hand comment that prompted me to be more intentional in modeling and teaching gratitude. He had just finished his lunch at the dining room table, and in his eagerness to play, he rushed back to his living room toys. I called to him quickly: “William, don’t forget to bring your plate to the sink!” I was standing at the dishwasher, watching as he turned around, picked up his dish, and walked to the kitchen. But instead of putting it in the sink, he handed it to me. “Here you go, servant.”

Although he said it with a grin, I stared back at him in disbelief. Was he joking? Or did he actually believe that to be my role? Joking or not, I wanted him to know that I went about my daily tasks out of love for our family, and that the proper response should have been a thankful heart.

Cultivating gratitude in our children is a process. It starts with helping our kids see the blessings in their lives. Then it involves some guided thinking about these blessings, recognizing that they are undeserved and ultimately not ours to hoard. And finally, we teach our children to do something about it, to take action to show appreciation.

SEE

It starts with recognizing the abundance in our own lives: from material blessings like overflowing toy bins, a stocked pantry, and always enough gas in the car, to the intangible grace, mercy, and kindness we’ve been given by our heavenly Father. Training our children to see involves being explicit in our noticing. 

One way we can do this is with our thank yous. Instead of casually tossing out a word of thanks, let’s be deliberate in saying thank you. “Daddy came home from a long day of work, and now he’s making dinner for us! Thank you, honey, for letting me rest!” or “I see you put your clothes away in your bin without my even asking you to! Thank you for making Mommy’s job easier today.” 

Another way we can help our children see their blessings is to draw their attention to what they have received. Rather than a perfunctory list every Thanksgiving, we can make an effort to call out a blessing as soon as we see it. “Isn’t it special that your cousins drove all this way to spend time with us?” or “Grandma took time off of work to take you to the zoo!” or “Not everyone gets to stay in a hotel on vacation, isn’t this a treat?”

THINK

Our kids are more likely to internalize gratitude when it is connected to a real life situation. As their parents, we can be on the lookout for teachable moments that spring up in our everyday lives. When we’ve taught them to see the gift, we can guide them in some thoughtful reflection. Questions like: What does it feel like to receive this gift? What do you like about it? Do you think this person had to give this to you? Did you earn this gift by something you did or said? These kinds of questions can guide our children in feeling more gratitude. We assume our children are processing these thoughts and emotions on their own, but children, especially younger ones, need us to mirror this inner dialogue. 

DO

Once our children have seen and thought about the gift, we can guide them to action to show appreciation. Whether it’s saying a genuine thank you, writing or drawing a thank you note, or paying it forward in acts of service, everyone can do something to express gratitude. 

Christmas is the perfect season to put hands and feet to our gratitude, and it’s the perfect opportunity to involve our children. Beyond the food drives, toy drives, and baking for our neighbors, let’s be intentional about giving out of our own abundance. We may not have a chocolate castle to give away, but let’s consider the blessings we do have.

An overflowing pantry? Invite another family to share a meal around your table!

Lots of relatives nearby? Include someone who is alone for the holidays to your family gathering!

Children with musical talent? Consider performing at a senior center!

Time in your schedule? Offer to wrap gifts for a busy mom in your life!

Photography talent? Volunteer to take holiday photos!

More than one car? Partner with Meals on Wheels to deliver meals to those who are housebound!

Crafty kids and lots of art supplies? Make and send handmade cards to deployed troops or children in hospitals!

Good health and an able body? Rake leaves or shovel snow for a neighbor in need!

An outpouring of gratitude

There is no shortage of ways to show our gratitude, and to model servitude for our children. When we see the blessings around us, recognize in humility that none of them are deserved, an outpouring of gratitude will bear fruit in our lives and in the lives of those around us. 

2 Corinthians 9:11 says that “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” (ESV) When we use our resources to serve others from a grateful heart, our words and deeds will point others to Christ. Let’s start with pointing our children to Christ by modeling gratitude in ways big and small, both during this holiday season and in the everyday ordinary of our lives.

**This post was originally published at The Joyful Life Magazine

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*Feature Photo by Marcus Wallis on Unsplash

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Sarah K. Butterfield is an author, speaker, and ministry leader who has a heart for empowering women to grow in their faith and be intentional with their time. She and her husband and two boys live in San Diego, where she writes about pursuing a deeper relationship with God in the midst of motherhood.

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