Growing up as a missionary kid in France had its perks, and the local bakery (or boulangerie) was one of them. In the front counter space of our nearest boulangerie were pastries of all sorts—elegant creations low on sugar and high on butter. Bins lining the wall boasted candy you could purchase by the gram—my favorite after-school indulgence.
One day, my dad and I walked hand in hand to the boulangerie to pick up an afternoon treat. I froze in front of the window as I noticed a giant chocolate castle on display. It had several chocolate turrets with arched doorways. Miniature bricks etched its walls and chocolate vines creeped over the sides. Intricate details in contrasting colors were made with milk chocolate and dark chocolate. It was wider than the wingspan of my outstretched arms. Upon entering, I realized that it was not just a work of art, it was a piece of heaven.
While my dad made small talk with the lady behind the counter, I continued to stare at the drool-worthy castle. I couldn’t believe how big it was. I fantasized about biting off the tip of a turret. The woman at the cash register interrupted my reverie. “Would you like a chance to win the castle? We’re giving it away!” My dad laughed good naturedly. “Sure! Why not?” He picked a number—17—and dropped it into a clear bowl.
Imagine my surprise a few days later when we got a phone call letting us know that we had won the chocolate castle. I couldn’t believe our luck! The delectable masterpiece sat on our dining room table, covering nearly half of it. It infused the whole first floor with its intoxicating scent. No one was quite sure how to enjoy it. We admired it, stared at it from a respectable distance, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat it. Taking a bite would have ruined the castle and no one was willing to be the first invader.
GIVING FROM OUR ABUNDANCE
After a few days of enjoying the sight and smell of our chocolate castle, my dad decided it would be best to give it away to folks who would actually eat it. He loaded it carefully into the trunk of our car while I clambered into the front seat. I smiled when we pulled into the driveway of the children’s hospital. The lady at the reception desk burst into a disbelieving laugh when she saw my dad walk through the door, the castle blocking his line of sight. Other staff members gathered around the table to admire it, impressed with the intricate chocolate details of the turrets and archways. They thanked us and assured us that the kids wouldn’t let any of it go to waste.
I didn’t regret my dad’s decision. Even with the biggest sweet tooth of our family, I recognized that the great joy I felt receiving the castle was the same joy I felt giving it away as a blessing to others.
It is this same heart of gratitude I want to cultivate in my two young boys. In a culture obsessed with personal advancement, the accumulation of wealth and status, and the pursuit of success, I want my children to love and serve others from a grateful heart.
AN UPHILL BATTLE
A few years ago, my 4-year-old son made an off-hand comment that prompted me to be more intentional in modeling and teaching gratitude. Having finished his lunch at the dining room table and eager to play, he rushed back to his living room toys. I called to him quickly: “William, don’t forget to bring your plate to the sink!” I was standing at the dishwasher watching as he turned around, picked up his dish, and walked to the kitchen. But instead of putting it in the sink, he handed it to me. “Here you go, servant.”
Although he said it with a grin, I stared back at him in disbelief. Was he joking? Or did he actually believe that to be my role? Joking or not, I wanted him to know that I went about my daily tasks out of love for our family and that the proper response should have been a thankful heart.
Cultivating gratitude in our children is a process of see, think, and do. It starts with helping our kids see the blessings in their lives. Then, it involves some guided thinking about these blessings—recognizing that they are undeserved and ultimately not ours to hoard. And finally, we teach our children to do something about it—to take action to show appreciation.
Nurturing gratitude starts with recognizing the abundance in our own lives: from material blessings like overflowing toy bins, a stocked pantry, and always enough gas in the car, to the intangible grace, mercy, and kindness we’ve been given by our heavenly Father. Training our children to see involves being explicit in our noticing.
One way we can do this is with our thank yous. Instead of casually tossing out a word of thanks, let’s be deliberate in saying thank you. “Daddy came home from a long day of work, and now he’s making dinner for us! Thank you, honey, for letting me rest!” or “I see you put your clothes away in your bin without me even asking you to! Thank you for making Mommy’s job easier today.”
Another way we can help our children see their blessings is to draw their attention to what they have received. Rather than a perfunctory list every Thanksgiving, we can make an effort to call out a blessing as soon as we see it. “Isn’t it special that your cousins drove all this way to spend time with us?” or “Grandma took time off of work to take you to the zoo!” or “Not everyone gets to stay in a hotel on vacation, isn’t this a treat?”
Our kids are more likely to internalize gratitude when it is connected to a real life situation. As their parents, we can be on the lookout for teachable moments that spring up in our everyday lives. Once we’ve taught them to see the gift, we can guide them in some thoughtful reflection with questions like:
- What does it feel like to receive this gift?
- What do you like about it?
- What all do you think was involved in this person being able to give you this gift?
- Do you think this person had to give this to you? Did you earn this gift by something you did or said?
These kinds of questions can guide our children in feeling more gratitude. We assume our children are processing these thoughts and emotions on their own, but children, especially younger ones, need us to mirror this inner dialogue.
Once our children have seen and thought about the gift, we can guide them to action to show appreciation. Whether it’s saying a genuine thank you, writing or drawing a thank-you note, or paying it forward in acts of service, everyone can do something to express gratitude.
Winter is a wonderful season to put hands and feet to our gratitude, and can be the perfect opportunity to involve our children. In this lull following the holidays, before we’ve seen the bud of spring, it can be easy to hunker down and forget there is still a world outside our doors, just as much in need of loving care. Let’s be intentional about giving out of our own abundance. We may not have a chocolate castle to give away, but let’s consider the blessings we do have. There are many practical ways to express gratitude by sharing our abundance:
- An overflowing pantry? Invite another family to share a meal around your table.
- Swimming in laundry? Start a sock or mitten drive to donate to your local homeless shelter.Children with musical talent? Consider performing at a senior center.
- Time in your schedule? Volunteer at your local school or humane society.
- Overflowing bookshelves? Start a neighborhood free library.
- More than one car? Partner with Meals on Wheels to deliver meals to those who are housebound.
- Crafty kids and lots of art supplies? Make and send handmade cards to deployed troops or children in hospitals.
- Good health and an able body? Shovel snow or pick up groceries for a neighbor in need.
AN OUTPOURING OF GRATITUDE
There is no shortage of ways to show our gratitude and to model servitude for our children. When we see the blessings around us and recognize, in humility, that none of them are deserved, an outpouring of gratitude will bear fruit in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
2 Corinthians 9:11 tells us “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.”
Just as my father taught me through the example of giving from our own abundance, we can nurture gratitude in the hearts of our children today. When we use our resources to serve others from a grateful heart, our words and deeds will point others to Christ. Let’s start with pointing our children to Christ by modeling gratitude in ways big and small, in the everyday ordinary of our lives.
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