Within moments of birth, a child’s life is driven by needs. Their first cry begins years of demands. And the demands get more insistent and determined as the child grows. By the time a child is two, he or she is determined that life is unfair and that they have to fight to get what they want. That’s when they begin to say no with force and stamp their tiny feet in protest. Or they begin to throw tantrums to persuade their parents to give them what they want. It often works, so they do it again, and a pattern is established.
Because of that, we have to start counteracting their natural tendency as soon as possible. The challenge is to raise thankful rather than demanding children.
No parent sets out to raise an ungrateful, materialistic child who is totally wrapped up with things, but it happens insidiously in our money-oriented society. So a parent needs to be proactive in modeling truth, since that is always more effective than simply sharing it. Someone once said, “God created us to love people and use things, but sadly, we live in a world where others use people and love things.” To raise a thankful child, we need to be intentional; it won’t just happen.
But to be an example, we need to face our own tendency toward materialism. What are we communicating to our kids by our purchases and aspirations? Are we teaching them that people matter more than things? To do that, you will need to be brutally honest with yourself in thinking through your own attitudes toward money. What values were you raised with? Are those good values, or are they more of society’s values than Scripture’s values? In what ways do you struggle with materialism? Is there one thing you think would make you happy if you attained it? Are you communicating that to your children?
If you realize you have a problem with materialism, how can you break old ways of thinking and establish new ones? Only by facing your erroneous ideas about material possessions and adopting new attitudes will you be able to truly communicate truth to your kids.
Gratitude has to be modeled.
Much has been said about how we are living in an age of instant gratification and entitlement. It is a message that is so constantly being thrown at us in our society that it takes great effort to be countercultural enough to refute the idea that we deserve to be wealthy, comfortable, and have things go our way.
But in Matthew 6:19-24, Jesus challenges us to think differently when he says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
If you have been raised with every comfort, you expect that and feel it your duty to pass that on to your kids. If you were raised with wants, you may feel you want to provide everything you didn’t have. Either way, you are doing your kids a great disservice. Only as you let go of your own rampant materialism are you able to teach your children to be content with what they have.
One of the simplest ways to combat materialism (the continual desire for something more) is by learning to recognize and be thankful for all your blessings. Are you glad that you have food in the house? Thank God for it in your heart and mention how grateful you are to the kids as you prepare their lunch. Don’t turn it into a sermon about how some kids are starving or how they should be grateful, just tell them how thankful you are.
As you develop a sense of thankfulness, make sure you recognize those blessings that are not material. Don’t just thank God for food, clothing, and shelter, but thank him for the intangible blessings he provides. When a friend calls, thank God for that and mention to your kids how grateful you were for the connection with someone you care about. If you read a novel you enjoy, tell your kids what a gift it was to learn something wonderful from the story. As your child does something you appreciate, thank God for her and tell her how grateful you are for what she just did. We don’t want to be unrealistic Pollyannas, but we do want to live as humbly and thankfully as Jesus did. As we do that, our kids can’t help but notice.
Gratitude can be taught.
Once you feel you’ve taken baby steps to get your own materialism under control (I think in our society this is a constant battle—at least it is for me), then you can begin to think of ways to teach it to your children. Gratitude is a decision, not a feeling. The psalmist says, “But I will give repeated thanks to the Lord, praising him to everyone” (Ps. 109:30 NLT)
One suggestion I’ve found useful is to create a “thankful” board. Each day ask everyone to write one thing they are thankful for on a chalkboard or whiteboard. If little ones are too young to write, they could draw a picture. Decide whether this should be at the beginning or end of your day according to your family’s schedule.
Another excellent suggestion comes from Anne Peterson in her Bible study, “Model Gratefulness.” She recommends asking the following questions when watching a commercial with your children:
- Would you like to have this product (toy, breakfast cereal, etc.)? If so, why?
- What if you were never able to buy this product? Would you always be unhappy?
- Will this product help you to love God more? Why or why not?
- Will you be happy once we buy this product, or will you then want something else?
It’s hard work to raise grateful children who aren’t looking for material possessions to make them happy, just as it’s hard to be the kind of people who model that. But it is possible and definitely worth the effort.