Growing in Gratitude: Cultivating a Thankful Heart in an Entitled Culture

Pain, need… and gratitude. One of these things is definitely not like the others, but they are intimately related.

A friend shared a moment with me that perfectly illustrates how these opposites work together. She recently took a trip to the beach with her daughter and a few of her daughter’s friends. She sat on the sand one afternoon and watched her daughter and her friends laughing, dancing, and taking pictures – the epitome of fun and friendship. The joy on her daughter’s face moved her to tears of gratitude. “I thought back to those first days after we moved here, when it seemed as if my daughter would never make friends,” she says. “She was miserable and cried every single day. It was so painful – for her, and for me and my husband.” My friend is convinced that going through that time of pain and need produced a real gratitude for friendship in both her and her daughter.

Parents want their kids to be grateful for the lives they’ve been given, who understand God’s clear command to “be thankful.” (Colossians 3:15). However, it’s much easier to teach our kids to say “thank you” or to write a thank-you note than it is to teach them to be thankful, living every day in humble recognition of the enormity of God’s provision and blessing in their lives. Let’s face it: teens just aren’t the most grateful creatures on the planet. Add to this reality the constant messaging of arrogant individualism and entitlement in today’s culture and you have the perfect recipe for dissatisfied and unappreciative kids.

But gratitude doesn’t grow in a vacuum. For us as Christians, gratitude begins with pain and need.  It is only when we are willing to face the ugly truth of sin and the pain it causes that we begin to discern our desperate need for a savior to rescue us and reconcile us to God. When we truly understand what we’ve been spared through Jesus’s death and resurrection, gratitude becomes a natural response. Pain and need are two of the necessary components that help develop a thankful heart.

As parents, however, our instinct is to provide for needs and prevent pain. Often our kids have no real reference point to begin growing in gratitude because we’ve done such a good job shielding them from the experiences that develop thankfulness. It goes against our natural inclinations but allowing our children to experience times of sorrow and need creates places where gratitude can grow. However, there are a few things we can do to encourage a spirit of gratitude while still protecting and providing for our kids:

Use judgement in “fixing” things for your kids. It’s difficult to learn from your mistakes if you rarely experience the consequences of them. It’s hard sometimes as a parent to watch your child suffer those consequences, but you are not helping them when you are too quick to smooth their path. Reassure them that both God’s love as well as yours is constant even when they mess up. Remind them that you can’t always protect them from the consequences of their choices, but God will always be able to use those mistakes to shape them into the person He wants them to be.

Don’t shield them from the reality of sin and its effects. While being conscious of age-appropriateness, allow your kids to see your own brokenness and grief over sin. Don’t hide your tears over your friend’s bitter divorce. Don’t minimize the presence of the homeless person in the park down the street. Have an honest discussion with your teen about the drug abuse that may be rampant in your community, perhaps even among your child’s friends. Be open – if you ignore an issue, your child will likely assume you don’t care.

Be prepared to deal with questions about God’s goodness in the face of pain and injustice. When the emotional or physical pain our kids experience isn’t their fault, it can seem to them that God is uncaring or even cruel. Remind them that God didn’t spare His own son from the most agonizing pain imaginable on the cross – pain endured so that in God’s love and mercy we might live in His kingdom forever. Assure them that our present inability to understand God’s plan does not mean that His plan is not good.

Don’t try to force it.  One of my biggest frustrations with my own children was my lack of success at making them see things the way I do. Most parents quickly learn you can’t make your child feel gratitude (or any emotion, for that matter). Gratitude is best experienced when it is a spontaneous reaction, not a required action. Sure, teach them to say “thank you” and insist they write those thank-you notes. But understand that those actions alone do little to cultivate any real sense of thankfulness.

Growth is an essential component for life, and this is especially true for us as Christians. As God works his task of transformation, our kids will experience times of pain and need, and it will be difficult for us as parents to see.  But without pain and need, there is no healing and provision. 1 Peter 5:10 promises that our difficulties will not be in vain:  “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast.”

That is a promise for which we can be thankful.

Tracey Rector is a freelance writer in Birmingham, Alabama. She and her husband Al are the parents of three adult children who are reasonably well-adjusted. She is a member of Brookwood Baptist Church where she taught youth Sunday School and plays in the handbell choir. She loves reading mysteries, cooking for her family and friends, and singing silly songs to her grandchildren Joshua and Evelyn.

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