Thanksgiving should be exactly that – a day of giving thanks to God for all of the blessings in our lives. Yet, Christian families should express gratitude on a daily basis. It’s sometimes easier though to see what is missing in our lives than what is there. As a result we can fall into the habit of complaining more than we express gratitude – to God and those around us. And since habits are often contagious in families, if you have forgotten daily gratitude, so have your children.
There are lots of fun things you can do with your kids to express gratitude – not just on Thanksgiving or during the month of November, but all year long. Here are some of our favorites.
A gratitude bucket. For some reason, in Luke 6:38 when Jesus talks about blessings being tamped down and overflowing (because we have given a lot back to God and to help others ourselves), I think of a bucket. Dollar stores often sell small buckets to use for decorative purposes. Place your blessings bucket in the middle of your kitchen or dining table with slips of paper and pens beside it. Encourage family members and visitors to write the things they are grateful for on the slips and place them in the bucket. Periodically, pull out the slips and read them as a family. How quickly can your family fill the bucket with gratitude? Can you fill a full sized bucket with gratitude, too?
A rose amongst thorns. Is your family having a particularly bad day – or series of days? It’s okay for everyone to vent, but put a strict time limit on it. Then spend twice as much time talking about the blessings God has given you that day in spite of the thorns you had to endure.
A gratitude wall. It doesn’t have to actually be a wall, but find a large space you can cover with paper. Encourage family members to cover the “wall” with the things for which they are thankful. Make sure the paper is thick enough to keep the writing from bleeding through or you may need to repaint the wall after all. If you want to go all out, paint a wall or an area with chalkboard paint and provide chalk for people to use to decorate your gratitude wall.
A family gratitude journal. Take some time at the end of each day to sit down as a family and add a few entries to your gratitude journal. To make the time a mini family devotional, share a few verses of scripture and end your journaling time with a prayer of thanksgiving for all of your many blessings.
Gratitude baskets. It could actually be a little token of some sort or a card or note. Periodically, spend time as a family creating thank you items for those to whom you are grateful. Pay special attention to thanking those who are often forgotten, like garbage collectors, mail carriers, Bible class teachers, kind neighbors, restaurant servers and store keepers. Discuss with your children how often we take people for granted who are helpful or kind. Remind them to constantly thank others each day.
Gratitude tsunami. This takes a little more effort, but can make the impact of gratitude more obvious to your children. Help your kids plan and execute a gratitude tsunami for someone like the school janitor or custodian, a bus driver or the person at church who is always especially kind to children. What’s a gratitude tsunami? At a specific time on a particular day arrange for as many people as possible to flood that person with notes, tokens of appreciation and verbal gratitude. The bigger the “tsunami” your kids can execute, the more obvious the impact of gratitude on others will be.
Have fun with it, but make sure your home is filled with gratitude. You will all benefit from it.
Over the years, I have noticed that sermons and Bible classes discussing serving others and sharing our faith tend to go one of two ways. Either they are extremely general in nature or (if it’s a class specifically for kids or teens) it focuses on doing little basic things around the home or school. As a result, kids and teens often get more specific ideas and encouragement about ways to serve others from secular sources. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing except that they begin to believe serving others happens more in a secular environment and they don’t learn the importance of connecting sharing their faith to service (or how to do it).
You may not be able to change this dynamic in your church very easily, but you can do some things with your own kids to help them learn about some of the many ways Christians serve others and share their faith around the world. This more specific knowledge can help them begin dreaming about how they can serve God and share their faith using their own talents and opportunities – now and in the future as adults.
Here are a few ways to expose your kids to more specific ideas of ways to serve God, while sharing their faith.
Invite people to share their stories with your kids. Since hospitality has been shown to be a key ingredient in successful Christian parenting, get even more benefits by inviting over people who serve God and share their faith. Encourage them to share their stories with your kids. What are they doing? How did they get involved in those ways? What skills and knowledge did they need to be effective?
Share books, articles and social media posts with your kids. Many people in ministry share their stories in a variety of ways. Follow lots of different people to get a taste of a variety of experiences. In my own ministry, for example, I would have never mentioned ministering to children who have been through a war. Then this year, a war broke out in a country where I do quite a bit if ministry work. I had a steep learning curve about ministering effectively to young people who have lived through a war. I also shared what I learned with others through my ministry. Your teens could have read the ebook that resulted and learned about what would be involved in helping children of war (who are often underserved around the world). While they might not be ready to do much yet, it can plant a seed either for more skills they want to learn or for ministry they hope to do in the future.
Explore secular non profits and discuss ways to adapt them so they would also include faith sharing. Secular non profits do some great things. They just don’t include the faith sharing piece God wants us to include in everything we do. Explore with your kids what different non profits are doing. How could a few things be changed to point those they are helping to God? (Note: For teens, the discussion should include funding. Many Christian groups become secular because access to government funds is often restricted if Jesus is mentioned. How could they find funding and still share their faith?)
Encourage dreaming, brainstorming and experimenting. Your kids need time to dream these godly dreams. Encourage them to brainstorm ways to solve the problems they see in the world around them by serving others and sharing their faith. Allow them to take some first steps towards something that interests them. Look at ”failure” as a learning experience. Not every idea will work, but sometimes what they learn from their mistakes leads to an idea that will work well.
Encourage shadowing, mentoring and apprenticeships. Do your kids seems particularly interested in a specific area? Is there a Christian doing those things that would allow your child to shadow him or her for a day or a project? Would they be willing to mentor your child? What about an apprenticeship where your child will be providing actual help on a ministry project? Encourage your kids to learn as much as they can and think of ways to make the ministry even more effective. Even if that ministry doesn’t like the ideas, they may be useful to your child in the future.
Don’t raise kids who have no specific ideas of ways they can serve others or share their faith. Or kids who think doing an occasional extra chore around the house or being kind to someone at school fulfills God’s commands for them to serve others and share their faith. Help them be prepared to fully serve God every day of their lives.
For many of you, the chaos that can mark the end of a school year is heightened with the anxiety produced by the pressure to give your kids’ teachers end of the school year gifts. The dirty little secret in education is that teachers feel as if many of the things they are given actually have very little thought or gratitude attached to them. As a Christian parent, teaching your kids to express their gratitude to others and God should be one of your priorities. So what can you do to teach your kids appropriate character lessons and help their teachers feel truly appreciated?
There is no perfect answer, because the personalities of teachers can vary more widely than one would expect. There are some ideas, however, that should appeal to the vast majority of them.
Have your kids write sincere, handwritten, specific notes. I know that for many of you, the idea of actually accomplishing this seems unbearable. However, it provides your kids an excellent lesson in going the extra mile, treating others the way you would like to be treated and showing gratitude. These notes need to be highly personal and specific. Encourage them to think of one or two examples of a time when their teachers made an impact on them. Did they have a difficult year, with a problem teacher? It happens. Even the worst teachers teach our kids something, though. They may not want to ”thank” this type of teacher for teaching them how they don’t want to treat children when they are adults, but encourage them to think hard of something positive the teacher did during the year. Notes filled with platitudes will never mean quite as much as notes that are specific. Most great teachers would probably be happier with a note like that from your child than some meaningless gift. (Note: Start really early with beginning or struggling writers. There will be a lot less stress for you and them.)
Find a gift that shows your family has been paying attention to them as people. Starbucks gift cards are great, but most teachers will never have to pay for a Starbucks drink again for the rest of their lives. How many families paid enough attention to learn that she loves to knit or wants to learn how to do something new. Or maybe she misses riding horses. Gift cards to make those things possible, along with a note connecting it to something shared during the year will let your child’s teacher know you thought of her as a real person and not just an ”employee”.
Remember the school custodian, librarian, specials teachers and others who are often forgotten. Did the school secretary help you out with something? Was the assistant principal always kind to your child? Notes from you or your kids with a small token will often mean more to the other people who work in your child’s school than an expensive gift to a teacher. No one likes to be forgotten or their kindnesses taken for granted.
Make gratitude a year long project. Want to make the end of the school year less stressful? Do all of those kind things throughout the year. A teacher who feels genuinely appreciated throughout the year will feel more encouraged than one who has presents thrown at her the last day of school that obviously have very little real thought or gratitude put into them.
Teach your kids to thank the teacher at the end of every class or day . Our daughter participated in an activity as a child that required taking a lot of classes each week. The studio insisted the children thank the teacher individually before they left the room at the end of each class. In fact, the teachers thanked the students, too. It made a difference in how they treated each other and set a great precedent.
Taking the time to help your kids express real gratitude to their teachers is a great way to teach them some important Christian character traits. Make sure you take full advantage of the opportunity.
Kids love presents. There is something exciting about tearing off beautiful wrappings and finding a surprise meant only for you. Your kids may not realize God has given them gifts, too. You’ve probably taught them everything they have is a gift from God, but have you taught them about the personal gift or gifts God has given them?
When discussing gifts, many churches focus only on the spiritual gifts given to Christians mentioned in Corinthians. Often those conversations are more confusing than helpful…especially to young people who haven’t been baptized yet. What churches often miss is the discussion on the more concrete and easy to understand gifts or talents God gives everyone to use to serve Him.
When the Tabernacle was being built, there is an interesting passage in Exodus 36 about some of the craftsman involved. It seems God gave certain people gifts or larger portions of gifts needed to build the Tabernacle. It’s these gifts of talent that are easiest for your kids to understand. We know from the parable of the talents that each of your kids has at least one gift from God to use in serving Him. Your mission as a parent is to help your kids discover, develop and find ways to use those gifts to serve God.
Since the first task is opening or discovering those gifts, what are some good ways to do that? Here are some of our favorite tips.
Observe your kids carefully. What do they like to do in their free time? What do they like to read about? What lessons are they begging to take? What raw talent are they already exhibiting? Often the talent God gave a child is obvious from an early age. There seems to be an inborn passion for using that talent and even small children can show the beginnings of talents. Watching your kids carefully can give you clues to their possible talents. (Note: Not all interests and passions are tied to actual talents.)
Think outside the box. Most people think of talents as obvious ones like artistic or musical talent. After they have gone through the list of those half dozen talents, they assume no talent is present. Intelligence, organizational skills, and other less obvious talents are also from God and need to be developed and used to serve Him. You can search for our past blog posts with a long list of these gifts.
Give them opportunities to experiment. Give gifts of kits that allow kids to experiment with different gifts in a rather affordable way. Many craft stores and places like Home Depot are known for offering free or low cost classes that allow kids to try out possible talents.
Encourage them to read about their interests. Your public library probably has books on a variety of topics to let your kids explore by reading about more complex talents before investing large amounts of money in lessons or resources. If your child is fascinated with glass blowing, for example, reading a book may help him or her understand whether actually blowing glass would be something they might really enjoy and have a talent for doing.
Take them to demonstrations. Some talents are regularly demonstrated. Back stage tours can help your kids see the work involved in developing and using a talent. Many art shows, historic and educational sites and specialty trade shows like cooking shows have live demonstrations. Often those observing are allowed to ask questions. Most demonstrators love answering the questions of kids and may even let them experiment.
Helping your kids discover, develop and use their talents to serve God is one of the most fun parts of Christian parenting. Spend some time this year helping your kids unwrap their gifts from God.
Christian parents usually give their kids opportunities to serve others as part of their spiritual education. Serving regularly with your kids is a wise thing to do if you want them to grow up loving their neighbors, serving those in need while sharing their faith and living their faith on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the ways we often engage them in serving others doesn’t have the impact on them it could.
Studies have found that when young people serve others through mission trips and the like, any spiritual growth is often small and not sustained over a long period of time. Serving others as a family can have the same results, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Making a few changes can mean your kids experience real, sustainable spiritual growth as a result.
Here are some things to make sure you include when your family serves others.
Talk about why you are serving. Just saying your family is trying to be the hands and feet of Jesus or love others like yourself isn’t enough. Take a close look together at the ministries of Jesus and the disciples found in the Gospels and Acts. Have real discussions about why God wants His people to serve others. Talk about the ways serving others point people to God and how you can enhance that by sharing your faith with those you serve. If your kids don’t understand the true, deep significance of serving others, it becomes just another family activity which can be omitted on a whim when they are older.
Focus on empathy rather than sympathy. Sympathy can have an element of pride attached to it. Empathy attempts to understand the thoughts and viewpoints of others. Your family doesn’t have to agree with or condone ungodly attitudes or actions, but you can understand why those you are serving may (in some instances) have made those poor choices. It can also help to understand the stories of those you are serving. What is daily life like for them? What struggles do they encounter? Empathy also tries to find things in common with those being served. Finding commonalities makes it harder to be prideful and easier to become passionate about sharing the Gospel message as you serve.
Include your kids in the planning and execution of your service. Your kids will be more invested in participating in something they helped plan. It’s also great experience that will enable them to plan and execute ways to serve others independently when they are older. Even toddlers can participate in aspects of the planning process by giving them two acceptable options for some part of your service and allowing them to choose which one you will use.
Make serving others relational. I’m not suggesting you refuse to donate to the various collection drives, it’s just they won’t have the same impact on your kids as developing relationships with the people to whom those items will go. Find ways to help your kids make relationships with those they serve. Long term involvement in the lives of the same people can have the best long term impact, but taking your kids to help deliver the items others collect can at least give some relational aspect to your service. If meeting the people is impossible, try reading a book written to develop empathy for people in similar circumstances.
Encourage your kids to work on their own spiritual growth as they serve others. Serving others can be a great opportunity to work on godly character traits like patience, perseverance, kindness and more. Ask your kids to pick a character trait with which they struggle and be intentional about improving in that area while they are serving. It can help if they memorize a theme verse they can repeat while serving to remind them of their goal.
Spend time on reflection. It took me awhile to fully appreciate the value of a time of reflection after serving others. The lessons you think your kids learn from a service experience may be very different from what they actually learned. Talking about the experience and asking them questions about their perceptions can give you opportunities to correct misperceptions and add insight in ways they may have missed. You can also reflect on the ways you would do things differently should you ever serve in that way again. Reflection is the piece that can help make spiritual growth sustainable.
Regularly serving others with your kids is one of the best things you can do to help them start to put together all of the pieces of their faith. Making these tweaks can make the potential spiritual growth from those experiences meaningful and sustainable.