When was the last time you heard, “Hey, thanks Mom for helping me with this school project. That meant a lot!” Or, “Thanks so much for dinner, Dad. It was delicious!” We’re not parenting for the kudos, but wouldn’t it be nice to hear “thanks” once in a while?
It’s not impossible to train our kids to be grateful. But it does mean pushing back on an entitled generation. Many teenagers today are growing up with the belief that the world owes them everything–from college to cars to jobs and a comfortable, trouble-free lifestyle. No wonder our kids aren’t developing a sense of gratitude! As parents, we know that few things are handed to us on silver platters. We can’t allow our children to grow up believing that they automatically deserve all the good things of life. But above and beyond a sense of entitlement, we know that grateful people are happy people. We want our kids to appreciate all the blessings of life and find contentment with what they have, and not complain about what they don’t have. For the health and maturity of our kids, we need to create a thankful home.
Be a Model
When I advocate for an attitude of gratitude in the home, I don’t exclude myself from the conversation. As parents, thankfulness is a characteristic that we, too, can grow in. So instead of demanding gratitude from my family, I first work towards modeling it. Let’s face it; parenting can be a thankless job. No one is running up to give you a pat on the back every day. But if you can show a thankful heart, your kids will recognize it and eventually pick it up as well.
Instead, of complaining about your job, let your family know how grateful you are to be working. After dinner, thank your spouse for their work in the kitchen. When your teen does a nice job washing the car, sincerely thank them for their hard work. When family comes over, be intentional about appreciating aunts and uncles, rather than talking about the ways family annoys you. When out in public, demonstrate appreciation and gratitude for your restaurant server, grocery store clerk, and others. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to genuinely model gratitude.
If we’re serious about creating a thankful home, we may have to make some sacrifices along the way. It may start with cutting down on watching TV all the time. Have you noticed that a lot of stuff on television is designed to tell you what you don’t have and why you should go out and buy it? Good marketing is built on dissatisfaction. From vacuum cleaners to fast food burgers, television wants to tell us about all the things we’re missing out on. So building a sense of gratitude in your home may require sacrificing time around the tube, and doing something else with the family. It also may mean scaling back on social media use. A recent study found that social media is making us unhappy. Researchers saw that people who use Facebook frequently are less happy and their overall satisfaction with life declined consistently over time. They also discovered heavy social media use makes us more envious. The more time people spent browsing Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other sites, the more envious they felt. Researchers said it’s the result of social comparison. Learning about the achievements and possessions of others makes us discontent with ourselves.
Are you constantly hopping online or turning on the TV to kill time? Well, gratitude is not likely to happen if we never pause to think—if we never pull the plug. It takes discipline to take a break from technology and to help our teens to do the same. But the more we limit the things that make us jealous, envious or unhappy with our lives, the more thankfulness has a chance to grow in our home.
Expressing our thanks can happen in a lot of different ways. We can swap stories with our kids about times we were grateful for something or someone in our lives. We can ask our teens, “Do you think I’m thankful for you?” and let that spark a bigger conversation. Sometimes on cold nights out here in Texas, I’ll go out and cut the power to the house, and the grandkids and I will grab candles, make a fire, build a fort, play games, cook some food, and talk about how great it is to have electricity. I tell you that those times with my grandkids have been some of the best moments I’ve had with them. Makes me wish I cut the power to the house more when my own kids were growing up!
You could take your teen on a trip and let them see how people in other countries live. Seeing first hand the impoverished places of the world will definitely grow a sense of thankfulness in your child for what they have in life. There are a million creative ways to get a child to feel gratitude. You don’t have to make them write “thank you” cards or say five things they are thankful for, but start exploring different ways to grow a heart of gratitude in your child. You may hit on a great family tradition of your own!
If the only time we stop to say “thanks” is around the table at Thanksgiving, then our teens will never make gratitude a habit. As parents, we have to be intentional and consistent about thankfulness in our home. It’s time to realize that our privileged kids may be creations of our own making. I know with my own children, I crossed that dangerous line many times and gave them things that I shouldn’t. I thought I was loving them, but those extravagant gifts only reinforced their perception that I was obligated to fulfill every one of their desires. While I saw these good things as gifts, they saw them as rights. This might sound harsh, but as parents, you do not owe your children anything! I have a principle I’ve shared with many other kids and their parents. I will often tell kids, “I want to give you everything, but I owe you nothing.”
Of course, if we love our children, we will meet their needs of housing, clothes, food and basic necessities. But you are not obligated to buy your teen a car, fund their college, or pay their phone bills. By providing for every one of their needs and wants, we are actually robbing our kids of gratitude and the ability to take care of themselves. Plus, why would a child ever leave the nest if every craving and desire has been met? A bald eagle will intentionally make her nest more and more uncomfortable as time goes by, to encourage her baby birds to fly the coop. With our teens, we should be making their responsibilities a little tougher every year to foster independence and a sense of thankfulness for what they have and what they’ve accomplished.
Our society doesn’t owe us a career, a home, a car, or a family. These are things that we have to work for and earn. That’s why developing a sense of gratitude starts with instilling a good work ethic in our teens. Don’t shy away from assigning chores and responsibilities for your kids. At the Heartlight campus I even make up work for my kids to accomplish. Whether it’s raking pine needles, walking the horses, or cleaning up the rooms, I want to give our students the gift of work. Using their hands and minds to achieve routine tasks provides them with a feeling of responsibility, independence, and community. They get a feeling of contributing to the group and accomplishing something for themselves. And when I pay them for the chores they do, it reinforces the idea that work equals reward.
Mom and Dad, don’t feel that giving your teen work will hurt them or make you a bad parent. It’s really the best gift you can give your kids, and one day, they will be grateful for it. By modeling thankfulness, sacrificing those things that steal gratitude away, being creative with how we show appreciation, and refraining from meeting every one of their needs, you can make sure that your a teen has a long list of reasons to be thankful.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.
His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Here you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens App, a great way to listen on your schedule.