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  • By Holly McLean

How to Raise Grateful Children: Helping Your Child Recognize Reasons for Joy!


What is the opposite of grateful? Ungrateful? What about "entitled"?

All too often in recent years, the word “entitled” has been used to describe the younger generation. Isn’t it true that it seems like an attitude of entitlement has begun to permeate a lot of our youth? Why is that, and how can we help our own children avoid this kind of character flaw?

Being that Thanksgiving is this week, we are going to be discussing different principles of parenting that can help you guide your child to an attitude of gratefulness.

When we are talking about gratefulness, we are also talking about happiness… and even deeper than that, joy. Gratefulness, happiness and joy are three words that give a lift to the spirit! A person who is not grateful is a person who is not happy. A person who is not grateful is a person without true joy. Clearly, we all want a life full of joy, but that cannot be obtained without the building blocks of gratefulness.

What are some building blocks to help your child attain gratefulness? Here are some ideas.

Teach Manners Why are manners so important to having a grateful spirit? One of the first steps to being grateful is thinking outside oneself. A person who has a perspective that is skewed by a lack of understanding of the positions of others cannot possibly be a grateful person. They have to see what others do for them, recognize it's value, and behave accordingly.

When a child learns to say words and show actions that are thoughtful of others, they can begin to see a perspective outside of themselves. Knowing to say “thank you”, “please”, and “excuse me” are basics to thinking about the feelings and thoughts of others. Not burping in public, using an “inside voice”, walking carefully around elderly people, waiting in line… all these things cause a child to think outside of themselves.

We will have a future session on teaching manners to children, but for now here are some quick actions to take to help your child have proper manners.

Require mannerly words – do not allow children to say “I want” but instead they must say, “May I please have”. Never respond to "I want" other than to correct it. Polite and mannerly words create a mindset of gratefulness because they take away the thought of entitlement and replace it with the attitude of request. Children must always say “thank you” to any action of generosity given them and should definitely say this at the end of every meal provided for them. Others first – tell children to put others ahead of themselves by allowing elderly people to go ahead of them in lines, sit when there are not enough seats for everyone, open doors or carry groceries for others. At church potlucks, many times the older people rally the children to go first in line. Instead, tell your children to stay back and wait for their elders to go first. Explain that this is polite and respectful to others.

Public awareness – help children recognize their own behavior when it comes to noise levels and walking through areas where others are about. Do not allow them to plow through crowds. Talk to them about being conscience of those around them at all times.

Thank yous – Have children write thank you notes, or at least color a picture in gratefulness for a gift or an invitation to a friend’s home. Help them think about how nice it was for someone else to consider them and how they need to show gratitude for the gift or invitation.

At the Table – obviously, table manners such as using a napkin, passing food kindly, not reaching over others, not interrupting others are necessary for good manners.

Use the Sandwich Method The words we use around our children can have a profound impact on how they view the world. They form their point of view, a perspective on right and wrong, and an attitude of gratefulness just from the things we say about what is happening in our own environment.

I had a wonderful great-grandmother, but there was one thing that I noticed about her when I got older. She was what I call a “pedestal or pit thinker”. If she liked someone or something… that person could do no wrong or the thing was absolutely perfect and the best thing that could ever be. Whenever she would find something that was not to her liking about someone or something, they were terrible and evil or that thing was completely worthless. Everything and everyone was either on a pedestal or in the pit.

I realized this was a problem because it can cause a sense of ungratefulness by not recognizing the good in things and people. Even though flaws need to be seen, discussed and understood at times… especially when we are trying to teach values to our children, we should always be able to find good things and have a generally grateful spirit too without excusing wrong doing or ignoring things that need to change.

My children attend a private Christian school. It is a great school, but everything isn’t always perfect… as with any school. I want to be able to discuss issues that may come up that I feel are a problem or teachers or events that may not be what I believe are appropriate with my children. But I do not want them to start to be ungrateful about the school they attend. So, whenever there is a problem that we have to discuss, I make sure we are using the “sandwich method” in our conversation about it.

The “Sandwich method” is talking about something with grateful or uplifting words first (top piece of bread), the problem and possible solutions second (the meat), and more grateful or uplifting words at the end (bottom piece of bread). This gives the children a sense that, even though things aren’t always perfect at school, there is much to be grateful for regardless of any problems that may come up.

This method can be used to discuss just about anything including problems with extended family, church, siblings, and politics. By talking about the good in everything and pointing out the bad, children get a sense of gratefulness for the world around them and their position in it.

Point Out Blessings Sometimes we all need to stop and think about the things we take for granted. We live in a warm, comfortable home. We have access to transportation, food, clothing, friends, church, even communication and instant news… just about anything we need or want.

Don’t we often forget to think about all these blessings? If things are going wrong, we start to complain in our minds, get cranky and even snap at others. When our husband does that one thing he always does that just drives us nuts… don’t we sometimes forget how many great things he does? All of this can steal our joy. It’s our attitude of ungratefulness that starts to come through and when we let it grow, we become the kind of people we know we don’t want to be.

What helps us change our own attitude? Thinking about our blessings. Same with children. They need to constantly remember what wonderful things they have in their lives and as parents, we need to make sure they do not forget it.

One way to help your child think about their blessings is to daily talk about the awesomeness of simple things in life – no matter what is happening. You can do this no matter the circumstances. For instance, if you are going to a restaurant and the parking lot is empty, mention how great it is you can park close to the door and get in quickly. If it is full, mention how this must be a really good place to eat if so many people are going there and you can’t wait to try their food!

If you are going to the store and you get a parking space right near the door, mention how blessed you are to get that close…but if you have to park far away, mention how you are grateful for the motivation to exercise!

Another thing to think about is when unfortunate things happen to others and your children know about it. Talk about how sad that is and pray for them. But also point out how blessed your child is not to be in a situation like that. If the other person is sick, say “Aren’t you glad you have your health?” or if they have lost a grandparent, say “We should remember how blessed we are to have your grandparents still here with us.”

Take the opportunity to constantly point out the blessings around you and your family. This will create a mindset to look for things that are good about any situation and not to dwell on the negative.

Say Prayers Teaching your child to have communication with God can really be a big part of creating a mindset of gratefulness. Just the thought of God and how He created the world, and how He loves us sets a foundation for joy.

When teaching your child to pray, remember to teach them not just to ask for things, but to always add praise and thanksgiving in with each prayer. Praise - talking to God about how wonderful He is, and thanksgiving - thinking of specific things to thank Him for.

Don’t always settle on “thank you for all the blessings you have given us.” This phrase can be used as a “vain repetition” with no thought put into it. Every so often, talk to them about what they will say to God before their prayers and let them think and discuss with you things they can thank Him for.

Give to Others - Sacrifice Have you ever wondered why it feels good to give to others? It naturally uplifts us to give, but why is that exactly? God has actually wired our brains to feel good when we do good.

Neuroscientists have recently discovered the following: "GIVING PRODUCES ENDORPHINS (and endorphins make us happy): Neurologists suggest that our brains are wired to derive pleasure from giving. Studies have actually found quantitative evidence that we feel a greater sense of happiness when spending money on others as opposed to when we spend the money on ourselves." (Harvard University Study)

When we give, we feel joy. When we have joy, we naturally have an attitude of gratefulness. I remember when my children were little, I wanted them to learn the J.O.Y. song. Here are the words:

Jesus and other and you What a wonderful way to spell JOY Jesus and others and you What a life for each girl and each boy J is for Jesus we meet place to place O is for others we meet face to face Y is for you and whatever you do Put yourself third and spell JOY!

For so many reasons, teaching your children to give to others is a good way to create a grateful attitude. It just naturally works.

But remember that the giving must really come from them. They must do some kind of sacrifice that they want to do to get that real feeling of joy. If you give them a coin to put in the plate at church (and I suggest you do this if they don’t have their own money --- so they can participate), that is not really them giving. They are participating and that is good --- so don’t stop doing this. But this is not them giving. This is just for the opportunity for them to do something during church to be a part of the service.

When you go out and buy a gift for them to give their dad, or other friend or relative… are they going to experience that joy of giving? No. They really aren’t and in fact, they can start to believe giving isn’t that wonderful at all. I suggest you do not do this. Let them either earn money to give a gift or make it themselves. They need to know how much it takes to give a gift in order to be grateful for the gifts they receive… and in order to feel the joy of giving.

Do Not Allow Over Indulgence

Have you ever been to a child’s birthday party and they are surrounded by a pile of gifts? They rip open a package, look at it and throw it aside to reach for the next one. Their parents have to stop them to try to get them to acknowledge the gift and say thank you. They do it grudgingly as if this brief act of appreciation is in the way of opening the next package. Or maybe they are stuck on one gift that they like so much they refuse to acknowledge any other gifts or the people who gave them.

This is a lesson in ungratefulness. The child has no thought whatsoever of others around them. They are too overwhelmed with the possibilities and completely disregard their guests. Why is this?

First, a child who is given too much is not able to process such a large amount of information and excitement at once. And actually, it would be the same with adults to a certain extent. When any of us gets too much, each individual thing isn’t as important. In contrast, when you receive one or two things, each thing becomes much more significant.

By limiting the amount of gifts your child receives at birthdays or holidays, you can much more easily teach gratefulness. You can talk to them more deeply about each gift and they can process the generosity of the givers.

Have you ever received a gift and really thought about all that someone had to do to prepare it for you? Maybe they made it themselves? If they bought it, they had to think about what you would like, consider your wants and needs, your life, your desires.

Then, they had to search for the perfect thing to fit the bill. They had to purchase it with money they could spend elsewhere, but sacrificed that money for you. They may have had to wrap it by choosing the wrapping paper or gift bag that would fit the gift.

Did they add a card? They had to take time to look through lots of cards to find one appropriate, or maybe they gave a handmade one. If it was sent through the mail, they even had to find your address, package it, go to the post office and possibly stand in line to mail it off.

As an adult, you can recognize all these things that went into that gift you received. You have given gifts yourself many times, so clearly you know what it takes to go through the process of thoughtful gift giving. But, does your child understand that? Do they have the same experience with giving to others as you do? No. They do not.

You can help them by talking through this with each gift they receive and making sure they acknowledge the gift and the giver. They will truly be able to look at the gift and give it thought, go to the giver and thank them wholeheartedly, and feel that joy of receiving as well! Of course, writing a thank you note or drawing a thank you picture is a must.

Teach Them to Show Appreciation Gifts are only the tangible presents. There are also gifts of time, effort and energy. Help your child notice the work others put in around them to make their life better.

In our church, there is beautiful woodwork. It borders all the walls, windows & doors. Our pulpit is handcrafted with extra features that make it not only esthetically pleasant to look at, but also make it functional for the user. Our communion table matches it and both are set on wheels to be easily moved making our stage area multifunctional. Even the cabinets in the lobby that greet visitors match and are rarely noticed by the passers by.

The man who did all this work sits in the second row on the right every week. He is quiet, not in the priesthood, never brings attention to himself. But, his time, energy and effort has blessed us for decades. I pointed all this out to my son the other day. He went up to this man and thanked him for all the work he did and let him know how much he appreciated it.

And what about school teachers, janitors and school cooks? What about Sunday school teachers? Coaches and youth activity directors, camp counselors and camp cooks? What about the preacher on Sunday or the piano player or special music providers? Even the priesthood who greet people at the door and take up the offering. Your child needs to recognize what all these people do for them.

When they do pay attention to this, they will soon have a real appreciation for it. Especially if they are also working to help others and have experienced the amount of time and effort put in to produce classes, camps and youth events.

Mention all these things to your child often. Have them thank their Sunday school teachers and go up to the preacher and shake his hand and thank him too. Remind them to let their teacher know they appreciate the work they do. Make sure they say "thank you" to their camp counselors and directors. Doing this will help create that grateful spirit in them that is so essential to having the experience of true joy.

Consider Allowance I’m sure most of you have heard of the phrase “spoiled rich kid” or “affluenza”. These refer to kids who grow up with wealth and privilege and have no concept of the value of money or of the assets they have acquired from their well-off parents. Many of them crash brand new cars and just go out and buy another. They drink and party, and the consequences of their behavior are often taken away by their parents or guardians.

These are the classic pictures of ungrateful people. And why are they ungrateful? Because they do not have to earn anything they receive. They feel “entitled” as we mentioned earlier. And, they are very unhappy. They have no gratefulness so they feel no true joy. How can it be that they have everything and are so unhappy?

Like we just talked about, the only way to really understand the joy of giving is to give. Similarly, the only way to understand the value of money is to earn it. The only way to truly feel gratefulness is to understand the value of things.

If you give your child allowance without any requirements to earn it, they have no sense of the value of money. They will not be grateful for the allowance, but they will feel entitled to it. If you would suggest they do something to earn it, they would feel offended at the thought of it. Afterall, they have always received money without working for it! Why would you require they work for it if they are entitled to it?

And, if they use their allowance to give a gift, they may feel some sense of happiness because they sacrificed money they could have otherwise used in another way. Notice, I am saying the only happiness they receive is from something they gave up themselves. But they will not feel that true, deep joy of giving because they did not earn the money themselves.

Do you understand what I am saying here? Parents can unwittingly steal the joy their children could otherwise experience when they do not allow them to earn their own money. To give their own gifts. To sacrifice themselves. And when they take that opportunity away, they also take away a lesson in gratefulness.

(There is one alternative to this. If you decide you would like your older children to budget money for necessities that you would normally provide for them, you can give them a certain amount of money that is for gas, school supplies, clothing, etc. It's best to tell them this money is not for fun or gifts, but for specific items they will need for the week or month. They must provide receipts. Let them pay for those items themself with the money provided and have a specific time each week/month that you hand out that money. If they run out of money before payday, they will have to use the money they earned themselves to pay for any extra.)

In our home….Some of the ways we have allowed our children to earn money is by doing extra chores around the house. In my view, all children should be required to do chores without pay. They live in the home and should be a part of keeping it clean and organized. They are not entitled to maid service. But extra chores are provided so they can have a way to earn money.

These are things like taking my and my husband’s laundry downstairs each day when they take theirs down. By collecting laundry and taking it to the laundry room, they earn a dollar. They can also get up early and take the dog out and feed her. They earn another dollar that way. They can take the trash cans out to the curb once a week on Fridays when we have trash pickup day. They can also return the cans to the garage at the end of the day. These are all besides their regular daily chores such as vacuuming, dusting, cleaning the bathroom, etc.

By providing ways for them to earn money, they not only help around the house with extra things, but they also get that sense of responsibility and a choice in earning money. They are not given any allowance, so the money they earn is what they have. Single dollar bills are left on my dresser and they can collect the money they earn each day. They also have a zippered bag for tithing and calculate what they need to put in it each time they earn.

If they want to go out with friends, to the movies, buy a gift… it would be up to them to have taken the opportunities afforded them to earn it. If they don’t earn it, they can’t go. And what is really interesting, they are so much more grateful when we do give them money at times for something special that we instigate. (For instance if I ask them to go to the movies with me and offer to buy their ticket!) They have a sense of the value of what they are being given and are very thankful.

Don’t Hop To It I know a parent who has unwittingly taught their child to be very ungrateful. I will call this child Melinda. Melinda has a mother who does everything she asks her to do. If she forgets her homework, her mother drives across town to take it to her. When she wants to go to a friend’s house, she simply announces to her mother she has to be there at a certain time. Melinda already knows her mother will take her. No need to ask.

She likes to do sports, so she expects her mother to pay for uniforms, take her to practices and be there for all her games. If a game is out of town, she expects her to either drive both ways, or make sure she is at the bus on time and will be there on time to pick her up. If her mother is late, she gets angry.

If Melinda has to stay after school, she doesn’t think about calling her mother to let her know. Melinda’s mother drives other children to school in a carpool, so when Melinda had to do something after school, all the children in the carpool had to wait in the car for an hour while Melinda finished up what she had to do. Her mother was too afraid Melinda would be angry if she left to take the other children home and went back to get her later.

If Melinda is having a hard time doing her homework, who do you think would do it for her? If she wants something for Christmas, does she have any doubt she will get it? Melinda has become entitled because her mother hops to it whenever she calls. She has expectations that her mother’s life revolves around her and if she does not deliver, she gets angry.

What’s the point of this story? You probably know. If you act like you are always “on call” to satisfy your child’s every whim, your child will not be grateful for the things you do for them.

Your child should know that when you take them somewhere, that is a gift. They should receive it with gratitude. When they ask you to do something for them and it is not convenient, don’t hop to it immediately. Let them know you have other plans. Talk to them about options and alternative ways to accommodate their request. If it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t. If you are able to work it out, you will.

The question may be, “Aren’t we supposed to always be there for our children?” Yes. In spirit always. In support always. With love and advice always. Yes. But we are not supposed to be their maids, servants or on-call chauffeurs. Are we supposed to stop everything at any time if they snap their fingers?

If we do that, we are doing what those “spoiled little rich kids” parents do. We are accommodating their every whim and teaching them they are entitled to our undivided money, time and attention. They see the world in a skewed way when we do this and it does not create gratefulness. There has to be a balance between showing your child they are important and mean the world to you, while at the same time showing them they are not the center of the universe.

Notice my story about Melinda… she was not happy. She was not grateful. Her mother was actually stealing some of her joy unwittingly thinking she was actually being the best mom she could be. She loves Melinda, clearly. But she is not making her grateful and therefore Melinda is not experiencing the level of real true joy she could be. In contrast, children who understand they are not the center of their parent’s world at all times and in all places are grateful for the time, effort and money they are given by them.

Bored is an Ungrateful Word I had to add this little piece of advice. Do not allow your children to rely on you for their entertainment. When my children would come to me with, "I'm bored", my response would be one of two things. "I'm not your entertainment committee" or "Bored is an ungrateful word." It didn't take long before my children realized that wasn't a productive thing to say.

We will discuss in another session how having times of boredom actually inspires creativity and is important to their development. But while discussing the subject for today, a child who is coming to you to remedy their boredom needs to understand two things. First, it is not your job to make sure they are entertained and they are not entitled to be entertained at all times. Two, that the many toys, games and books that have already been provided for them are gifts and to come to you and suggest that these are not good enough is an ungrateful attitude. They should understand there are many children in this world who have nothing.

Do not get angry or punish your children for saying this to you unless you have already told them not to do so. They don't realize they are being ungrateful. Teach them about this and open their minds to the idea. Let them think about it.

Find Those Less Fortunate When your children see people who have less than they do, they can compare and get an understanding of what true blessings they have in their own lives. Giving time to a shelter, making things to share with neighbors who need help, visiting nursing homes, and even going on missionary trips when possible are all ways for your children to experience this.

Sharing their talents with elderly people at nursing homes is a really good way for them to see people who would be happy just to be able to walk, see or feed themselves. By going there your child can also feel like they are being of service. If you go, point out how these people have lived full lives and may have many stories to share. But, also point out how now they are unable to take care of themselves… and “aren’t you glad you can walk, eat and get dressed all by yourself?” A sense of gratefulness can be gained from recognizing the plight of others.

Other ideas: Help them earn money and purchase things to send in a care package to children overseas. Teach them how to crotchet and have them make blankets for sick children in the hospital or the homeless. Help them earn money to purchase supplies for pets in a shelter. Have them prepare sandwiches to pass out to homeless people. Help them prepare care packages for a mother’s refuge shelter.

Gratefulness comes from empathy for others, not just those who are less fortunate, but even for you as their parents…to have an understanding of the value of time, money, effort and emotion. Teach these values and you will see your child become a grateful person … and by doing so … experience true joy!

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