By Tim Sanford, M.A.
When Shane and Anna’s tween-aged son, Jared, broke his iPhone, they bought him a new one. Jared took the phone with no remorse for how he’d treated his previous one and no thanks for getting the most recent iPhone on the market. When Shane and Anna confronted Jared about it, Jared muttered a simple thanks and then returned his attention to his phone.
“He just expected that he should have a phone — no matter how he abused it — and that his mother and I should give it to him just because,” Shane told me, expressing amazement and frustration. “Jared showed no sense of gratitude for the sacrifice we made so he could have that privilege.”
While saying, “Thanks, Mum and Dad, for buying me a new phone” is certainly important, gratitude is more about what’s behind the words. True gratitude is a way of viewing things. It’s a state of amazement over all the things someone has given us and done for us. It’s a mind-set that realises, “Wow, I have a mum and dad. Wow, we have money for me to have a phone, and mum and dad care about me enough that they trust me with one of my own.”
We live in a culture that teaches, “I deserve it”. Yet that mind-set flies in the face of gratitude and can be devastating to our children’s mental health and well-being. As parents, we love our children, we want them to be well-adjusted and happy, and we’d do just about anything for them. But if we aren’t careful, we can help create and enable within them the “I deserve it” mentality. To protect against that, as we teach our children to say “please” and “thank you,” we also need to teach them what’s behind those words and how embracing an attitude of gratitude can help make them more mature and happier human beings.
Focus on what you already have
One tactic advertisers use is to get us to focus on what we don’t have and convince us we will be dissatisfied until we own it — whatever “it” is. As parents, strive to instil the opposite perspective. That is what my wife and I tried to do. When we were teaching our children about gratitude, we intentionally took time to focus on what we did have rather than what we didn’t have.
Before our girls even started primary school, we taught them the “I’m thankful for” game, where each person in turn names three things they are thankful for. As our children grew older, we encouraged them to name things that were deeper than just their possessions (such as being thankful for having a warm house to live in versus expressing thankfulness for their toys and bicycles).
That game helped instil an ability to keep our children’s focus on being “content with what you have”. So that when rough patches came, they were able to recall the good things in the midst of life not going the way they wanted.
Earn what you want
When our girls wanted something, such as an expensive toy, we offered them opportunities to earn their own money. We helped them think of things they could do for friends and neighbours or items they could make and sell at bazaars. That way they learned the value of what things cost and instilled within them the desire to take care of those things themselves.
By Primary Five we had them on a budget, using the envelope method, in which they placed their hard-earned cash into an envelope so they could see exactly how much money they had. Until age 12 or 13, children are concrete in their thinking, so unless they can see money, handle it and actually give it to the cashier, money, budgets, and value are too abstract for them to truly comprehend.
Understanding the actual cost in time and effort it takes to earn a ringgit helps with gratitude. When they finally earned — and saved — enough money to purchase their own high-end toys, they were grateful beyond measure.
Consider what others don’t have
As our children grew we exposed them to people who had less than they did. Talking about “the starving children over in (wherever)” is too abstract. We wanted them to see, talk to, and interact with real people who had less.
After each encounter, we would talk about what they saw and felt. We talked about what we have or what they don’t have. Serving meals to the homeless, volunteering at the elderly home or sponsoring a child through a sponsorship organisation are just some of the ways we can expose our children to real people who have a lot less than they do.
When we purposefully choose to acknowledge what we do have, that is enough to cause us to be content. Being content in all things is a discipline we have to “learn.” Truth be told, as my children and I considered what we had, we admitted that we were safe and well. We had our basic needs met, and then some. We actually could be content, for real. We just had to stop long enough to realise that truth and then verbalise it to one another. After all, it isn’t “stuff” or even circumstances that cause contentment.
Without a mind-set of gratitude, our children will never be at peace or content. But when they “Count your blessings, name them one by one” — they will be rich and fulfilled beyond measure.
Timothy L. Sanford is the Clinical Director of Counselling Services for Focus on the Family.© 2018 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.