Last Christmas was magical. It took us six days to open the Christmas presents because our child would open one and then play with it in delight for several hours.
This Christmas was frenzied. There was ripping of wrapping paper and then standing in the middle of the floor too overwhelmed to play and looking for more gifts to open.
And developmentally, this is completely normal. But it is a small snapshot of a bigger issue that all parents need to grapple with … how do we teach our young children to be grateful?
Gratitude isn’t like using a spoon or riding a bike; it isn’t a skill that you learn and is ticked off the development chart. It’s a hard, ongoing lesson because we are sinful and take God’s gifts for granted. In Luke 17:11-19 Jesus heals 10 men from leprosy but only one returns to thank him. Our sinful nature causes us to accept God’s gifts with open arms and then forget they were gifts in the first place. In fact, because of this both we as parents and our wider culture often teach our children to be ungrateful.
Our culture teaches us that we never have enough. The American Academy of Paediatrics estimates that a typical American young person sees around 3,000 adverts every day on TVs, computers, and billboards. Creating discontentment is a key and effective marketing strategy.
At the same time, the way that we parent can make gratitude a hard lesson for our children to learn. It’s easy to overindulge our kids, by the amount of things we buy them, or the amount of activities and opportunities they have, or by doing everything for them. We don’t require them to ‘earn’ anything by helping out, or clean up their own mess, or learn to be responsible because we quickly step in to fix all their problems and mistakes. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America earlier this year has found that if we continually tell our children that they are more special than others, they are likely to grow more narcissistic.  Parental warmth, where parents express affection and appreciation for their child, leads to high self-esteem, whereas parental overvaluation, telling a child they are more special and entitled than others, leads to narcissism. When we think that the good things that happen to us are deserved, that we are entitled to them just because of who we are, we no longer view them as a gift, and so there’s no reason to be grateful.
Teach your children about Jesus and about what he has done for us. Paul writes in Colossians 2:6-7, ‘So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.’ If our family life is full of talking about who God is and full of thankfulness for all that he gives us, we will be passing these truths on to our children as they grow up.
There are also lots of practical ways to encourage thankfulness to God and to others in our children.
- Set aside time each week to thank God for family, friends and all the good gifts he has given your family. It could be around a meal time or at bedtime.
- Get into the habit of saying thank you to others, e.g. the shopkeeper or librarian. Write thank you cards for presents received but also for kind things others have done.
- Manage expectations. When they’ve compiled their Christmas wish list, explain that you appreciate there are many things they would like but it will only be possible to get a few of them. Remember this yourself when you buy them gifts too – it’s hard to learn to be grateful if they always receive everything they ask for.
- Teach them to take care of their possessions. No matter what age our children, they can start to learn to put toys away, creating some responsibility.
- Help them give to others who are less fortunate, maybe through donating clothes or toys, or fundraising for a charity. Even giving to other people in the community helps your child learn to be generous and care for others. This could mean baking a cake for an elderly neighbour, visiting nursing home residents, or taking a welcome card to a new family in the street.
- Teach them that other people have needs. It’s easy to get our child involved in giving to charity but they’re never really sure what they’re giving to. So when you next visit one of those stores who give you tokens to put in a charity box on the way out, rather than just choosing one at random, stop to explain to your child what each charity does and who they help, so they can make an informed decision.
- Be a grateful parent. If our children see gratitude modelled in us daily, they are likely to ‘catch it’ from us as they grow up. This could include saying thank you to people who make a difference to your life, such as the waitress who clears your table. It could mean that after you’ve said how tired you are from work, adding that you’re really grateful to God that you have a job which can help provide for the family. It’s such a great example to our children if they see that we as parents ‘Rejoice always,pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances’ (1 Thess. 5:18).
As a parent of two toddlers, it really matters to me that we are teaching our children to be grateful to God for what they have and that they are learning to reach out with God’s love and compassion to others. I have previously worked for a number of charities and have seen the difference that small acts of kindness and donations can make to children who are struggling in challenging circumstances.
It’s not all about me
Earlier this year I launched Not All About Me, a website which aims to help parents engage two to eight year olds in giving to others. There are ideas on the website about how to get involved in giving to your local community and to charity as a family. There are also ‘charity snapshots’ outlining how some charities are helping disadvantaged children, written in a way that a child can understand. There’s a ‘family challenge’ to give up one paid activity in your week, e.g. a trip to a soft play centre, try out one of the suggested free activities instead and donate the money you would have spent to a good cause. I hope these small things can make giving to others an integral ‘habit’ in our family life.
We don’t know how present opening will ‘unfold’ this Christmas. But if we’re seeking to teach our children about the gift of God’s son, and to be grateful for what they receive, while looking for ways to care for others, it’ll be another one of many great opportunities to practice gratitude as a family.
Kathryn Kendall lives in Poole with her husband who is an Assistant Minister. By day she’s a stay-at-home mum with her children and by night she works with charities to develop new projects and resources.
 The American Academy of Paediatrics, “Children, Adolescents and Advertising”, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/118/6/2563.full.