Today, September 21st, is World Gratitude Day.
For those who follow these things, today is a day to look around us, take stock, and express gratitude. Ideally, it’s a day that should be repeated every day of the year. So much so that it becomes less of a special celebration and more of an embedded culture.
But how? How does a culture of gratitude seep into our very bones and heart? How do we transfer this to our children?
I have a few ideas, but let me be transparent right from the word go. I’m no expert in this field. In fact, there are times I look around at my entire family and despair. Have we a grateful bone in our collective body? Some days, my kids put on a spectacular display of ingratitude and entitlement. And, embarrassingly, my husband and I have our fair share in that department too. But, the one thing we’ve managed thus far is to say, “Man, we screwed up today! Please forgive me.” We’re all still a work in progress, which is why we come back to these things time and again.
While gratitude is simply recognizing blessings and being grateful for them, recognizing the blessing in everyday things can take a little work. Here are the things we’ve done over the years to help instill a culture of gratitude.
Modeling and Marveling
I believe gratitude is an attitude that can be modeled. And one of the ways it can be modeled is by marveling. One of the things that I find easy to marvel about is the beautiful mountain in our city. Table Mountain rises majestically from the center of our city. Its flat-topped summit is what gives it its name, and the table-cloth like cloud that often spills over adds to its beauty. On crisp winter mornings or bright summery days, I’m likely to exclaim, “Look at the mountain! Isn’t it just beautiful? Aren’t we so lucky to have such beauty in the middle of our city?!” The kids used to roll their eyes in mock exasperation when they were younger, but nowadays, they’re spotting the beauty themselves. Some days I hear my very own words echoing from their mouths before I’ve had a chance to notice!
Marveling may not be something that comes naturally to you, but it’s worth pursuing. Making a decision to find at least one thing to speak about with gratitude each day, aloud for your children to share, not only models gratitude but can also lift your own spirits. Little things like stopping to look at a bug and saying, “Wow, isn’t the pattern on his back so intricate and beautiful? Isn’t God so clever? I’m so amazed and grateful he put such thought and beauty in even these little guys.” Or bigger things like finding the silver lining in an otherwise unpleasant situation: “Today was really hard, wasn’t it? I’m sad our car broke down. But, wasn’t it so kind of that man to stop and help us? He really went out of his way and was such a blessing to us. How about we bake him a special thank you gift tomorrow?”
When our kids were little, one of the things we placed a fair bit of emphasis on was manners. We felt strongly that “please” and “thank you” and greeting people sincerely and kindly were important behaviors that would ideally become second nature. We hoped that as the actions became instilled, so their hearts would also take on board the reason behind it all – and that in so doing, they would recognize the value and blessing of the other person. We still believe this today. Yet, our four kids still have to be reminded about manners more regularly than we would like! But, while they may not remember their ps and qs every time, they all have a high regard for good manners. And, we try to give them plenty of opportunities to practise, including the ritual of expressing their thanks for gifts received, especially for birthdays or Christmas. When they were younger, we helped them along by videoing their thank yous and sending them via instant message to Granny or Aunty.
Saying sorry is something that we don’t automatically recognize in relation to gratitude. The truth is, though, that when we are grateful for someone else or that person’s actions, we are less likely to hold a grudge against him or her. To help our children recognize their wrongdoing, we get them to practise what I call an “electric toothbrush” apology. It’s the kind of apology that has the potential to bring about beautiful restoration, much like an electric toothbrush has the potential to bring about beautiful teeth! 🙂 Part of that apology includes naming what they did that was wrong, why it was wrong, and why they would like forgiveness. Often that process includes the recognition of our wrong in contrast to the gratitude we should have felt. Almost always, when the apology is heart-felt, we recognise that the other person is of great value to us – and to God – and it’s hard not to feel gratitude in these times!
Do Over Days
Sometimes, when the kids are grumpy or feeling particularly mean spirited toward each other, we declare a do-over day or week! It’s a liberating practise because we all know that we are doing it as an exercise in appreciating each other. We also all know how it works, and no one needs to let the temperature of his/her mood rise beyond boiling point. Especially me! Quite simply, if one child speaks unkindly or doesn’t show gratitude, I will ask her, “Would you like to do that again?” The kids know this means it’s a chance to change their words or tone to suit an attitude of kindness. Often, this includes recognizing what her sibling has done for her that is good.
Sometimes, even do-over days don’t quite get a grumpy child out of his funk. If things are really sour, I sometimes require them not to talk at all, unless their words will be neutral or uplifting or showing gratitude. They each have to think of at least a few things to say in the course of the day to show gratitude for their siblings. Sometimes we make a game of it – there have been times the kids have dissolved into fits of giggles after having been required to sing their gratitude towards their siblings in operatic style!
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
My sons play soccer, and sometimes their teammates can be pretty mean. When they are discouraged, we chat a bit about what makes them feel discouraged and what they can actively do to spread love. We often talk about what makes kids be mean. And we talk about how sometimes home circumstances can be really rough for those children and what they may need is a kind word in response to their meanness.
During this current season, the boys and I pray about each practise to come. When they return, they’re required to tell me of at least two times they encouraged a team mate and especially what they said that lifted up a kid who was normally unkind or boastful. I’ve watched my eldest son blossom over the term, and nowadays he runs back to the car full of vigor and joy ready to share how he used his words to build others up.
Often we will openly talk about the things we are grateful for and why. In some families this is a nightly habit that happens around the dinner table. In our family, we do this sporadically as and when situations arise. Some families will be more intentional and creative with crafts or activities centered around the theme of gratitude, such as a daily message in a gratitude jar. But labeling gratitude doesn’t need to be a retrospective thing. It includes saying thank you in the moment and labeling what it is that you feel grateful for.
I like to tell someone why I am thankful. “Thank you so much for picking up my kids today; you’ve got a lot on your plate, and your making time to help me out means so much to me!” I like for the kids to explain why they’re thankful, too. And over the years, they’ve begun to be more expressive about why they are saying thank you. Recently, I arranged for my eldest daughter to have a backstage tour after seeing an internationally touring show of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. She came home and thanked me profusely, saying, “Mom! Thank you so much for organising that for me. It means so much to me that you took the time to plan such a great surprise! You didn’t have to do that, but you did, and it was so special!” Needless to say, my heart was full!
One of the best ways to highlight gratitude is to serve others. Our piano teacher brings her baby and little daughter to our home when she comes to teach. The kids love to look after the little ones and to serve Laura with a cup of tea while she teaches. Laura is always so warm with gratitude that the kids feel very appreciated and loved, which in turn makes them eager to serve again. But even without such sweet praise, serving others can highlight what we can be grateful for. Hospitality, serving outside of the home, sharing what we have … all these things highlight the things we do have, and seldom do we come away from serving without feeling a sense of gratitude for what we have and for the privilege it is to share.
This list is by no means exhaustive. There are many other practical ways to help our children develop a culture of gratitude. Perhaps you have some great tips for us. We would love to hear from you!
In the meantime, we hope that today will be a day filled with deep, heart-warming gratitude for the gift of life and all the goodness that comes with it.