“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
- 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NIV)
Want your kids to be happy? Then train them to be thankful.
It’s often said thankfulness is the secret to contentment. When people focus on what they do have instead of what they don’t have, it totally changes their perspective on life.
Several years ago, I had a student named Jenna. Before the school year even started, all of her former teachers came to my room, put their arms around me and said, “We heard you have Jenna this year. We’re so sorry. She’s a nightmare.” They told me how Jenna’s mother had died three years earlier and she was mad at the world. They said she threw constant tantrums, and would always scream, “You don’t understand! My mother is dead!”
The first day of school Jenna was true to form and threw several loud and disruptive tantrums. At first, I tried to be very sympathetic and understanding, but she was out of control. She could only see one thing in her life—her mother died. That was her one and only focus.
So, the next day, I gave her a Gratitude Journal. I told her that instead of the usual morning work, her assignment was to write 10 things she was thankful for. She immediately threw the journal against the wall and screamed, “I don’t have anything to be thankful for. My mother is dead!”
I said, “Are you in a wheelchair? Then write down you’re thankful you have two healthy legs. Are you blind? Then write down you’re thankful for good eyesight. Do you live under a bridge? Then write down you’re thankful you have a home.”
The first week I had to prompt her on every single thing. She literally couldn’t think of anything good on her own. After a while though, she could easily think of 10 things to be thankful for. This assignment forced her to look around and look for the good and not focus on the bad.
Jenna still had her ups and downs that year; but overall, she wasn’t bad. The cool thing about this story is, by the next year, Jenna had totally changed. Her new teacher had no idea how disruptive she’d been only the year before. As far as the new teacher was concerned, Jenna was a well-behaved and loving girl. Wow—being thankful had totally transformed her personality.
My mother is another incredible example of how having a thankful heart will give you a positive outlook on life. My mother, age 90, has been a widow AND blind for the last 17 years. She lives alone, rarely gets to go anywhere, and yet she has such a thankful heart. Every time I talk to her, she constantly talks about all her blessings. She says things like, “We’re so lucky to live in America where we can take a hot shower every day. Can you imagine not being able to shower every day? We’re so lucky!” Or she says, “It’s a great time to be blind! I’m so lucky there are so many books on audio now!” Even though most people would be extremely depressed in her situation, my mother is quite content. She has learned to focus on her blessings, and not on what she lacks.
We need to train our children to have a thankful heart so looking for the good will become a habit. Here are a few ideas on how to instill a sense of gratitude:
1. Model thankfulness.
Be sure to say things like, “We’re so lucky we live in such a nice house.” Or “We’re so blessed to live in America where we have so much food. You know a lot of people in the world don’t have enough to eat.” Start focusing on all your blessings and point them out to your children.
2. Always say thank you.
Let your children observe you say thank you to your spouse, to store clerks, to waitresses, and to others. Always tell whoever cooked dinner how much you appreciate their hard work. Insist that your children say thank you for everything as well.
3. Keep a Gratitude Journal either as a family or individual.
Challenge your kids to find 10 things each day to write in the Gratitude Journal.
4. Take your children to a poorer area.
Sometimes children don’t realize how lucky they are until they go somewhere else. I remember on one vacation with my boys how we drove through several really poor little towns. My boys were shocked that the houses were so small and run down. Suddenly our mid-size house was looking pretty good to them.
5. Compare your situations to others in poorer countries.
I love the story about the homeless man who was complaining to a new immigrant that he had to sleep in his car. The immigrant was shocked. He said, “You have a car? You must be very rich.” No matter what your circumstance, someone somewhere has it worse.
6. Insist that your children write thank you notes for gifts.
If your children are too young to write, have them draw a thank you picture and you can write the words for them. Or, at least have them call the gift bearer and tell him thanks in person.
7. Play the Glad Game.
I love the old Disney movie Pollyanna. In the movie, Pollyanna always finds the good in any situation with the Glad Game. The rules are that no matter what happens, you have to find something to be glad about.
8. Have your kids buy their own nonessentials, such as toys, video games, accessories, etc.
When they see how long it takes to save up for things, they’ll appreciate them much more.
9. Have your kids help with household chores, such as cooking, cleaning the kitchen, etc. It will give them a new appreciation for all you do.
For specific ideas on how to instill virtues in your children, read Parenting with Focus.