Developing Gratitude: It’s Not Just a ‘Thank You’

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November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving generally brings a rush of “What are you thankful for?” moments. Kids give it a moment’s thought and answer with something like my iPod, my house, my family, or my dog. The “thankfulness season” culminates with a huge meal followed, in near whiplash velocity, by Black Friday, the launching of the “gimme’” season.

I often struggle to help my kids understand how great they have it in a world where so many live homeless, hungry, or alone. Kids growing up in a nice home, with food on the table and parents who love them, can start to feel entitled, not from a deficiency but because that’s all they know. Without experiencing a traumatic youth, how can they grasp what could be? How do I extend “I’m thankful for my house” into character that approaches life with a sense of gratitude? Frankly, some days I think a little trauma might be good for them, but instead I use these general approaches.

Get out of your bubble.

Everyday life is just that – every day. We don’t see what is always there. I bet you’ve experienced this. How often are you moved by a news story or an internet video where someone meets another’s needs? Look at the recent Batkid excitement in San Francisco. We all love an uplifting story. But how many opportunities do we miss around us every day because we just don’t see them?

Any experience that takes us out of the norm and into a new situation tears away the blinders. You might think this refers to experiencing the life of those less fortunate. Of course, allowing your kids to live the life of those who live in want would be quite effective but it might not be something you can arrange. Simply expand your child’s frame of reference. Seek out new places, people, and environments, anything from a different city to another family from a different culture than yours.

Be aware.

As parents, we tend to want to shelter our children from the horrible realities of the world. But stepping out from this protection as an adult can be a rude awakening.  With you as a filter, your child can be informed about the world in a way that allows them to develop an appreciation for their situation and feel compassion for those who live in fear. Being aware means more than just turning on the news and bombarding the family with doom. Obviously, this needs your delicate expertise on your child in order to avoid creating a sense of fear in them.

Form relationships.

Telling your kids that there are children in the world that are hungry, or many people feel lonely, or families live in fear of their government, it might not really sink in. As with all of us, this knowledge become more meaningful when it’s personal. Look for opportunities and take the time to develop a relationship with someone less fortunate than you. Our family sponsors two children through Compassion International and Children of the Nations. We have pictures of them on our refrigerator, our kids can write them letters, and the girls write us back. Similarly, we pack up shoe boxes with gifts to send to kids every Christmas. In those moments, those kids seem like friends for my children and they want to give them everything. You don’t even need to spend money. Is there an elderly person in your neighborhood that could use company? Is there another child at your kids’ school that needs some family time?

Model it.

I’ll admit. I catch myself complaining. Our house is very small, especially with four of us packed into it. Sometimes we feel like sardines and I whine, “Ahhh, when are we going to get a bigger house?” Usually, I hear myself, cringe, and say to my kids, “You know what, that’s silly. I should be happy we have a house, and a family, and food in the fridge. There are plenty of people who don’t.” This doesn’t mean we should walk around with a fake smile on our face and never express frustration. It does mean that we need to be careful with the message we are sending.

True appreciation for our circumstances takes a lifetime of growth. We can always improve. Our children can certainly benefit from a proper sense of what they have. In this case, practice really will make perfect, or at least better. Every small way that we allow them to see beyond the curtain of their own lives, we build their sense of gratitude.

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