LUKE, AGE FIVE, wants to go to the playground, but mom has another plan, so Luke throws a temper tantrum. He complains. He grumbles. He wallows in self-pity . Mom knows her son should be grateful. She has spent hours lecturing him on the virtue of gratitude, but the results have been meager. She is discouraged. Can you relate?
Teaching children to be grateful is important. It make them winsome to the adults around them. But gratitude also expresses humility, and that is the most important reason to teach them this discipline. The opposite, complaining, whining, and pouting express pride. Above all other virtues, God blesses the humble, and above all other vices he resists the proud. For example, "Humble yourself before the Lord and he will exalt you" (James 4:10), and Isaiah 2:11 counters with "The lofty pride of man shall be humbled." Psalm 138:6 tells us that "[God] regards the lowly, but the proud he knows from afar." You want God to bless your children not resist them.
What is the connection between gratitude and humility? A grateful heart is one in contact with reality. It's gratitude flows from the conviction that it is utterly dependent upon God. It did not make itself. It is not in charge of today or tomorrow. God is in charge of today and tomorrow, and he is good. He alone is the sovereign Creator. But a heart that whines and complains rejects these truths. It does not believe that God is both sovereign and good. It is selfish and self-centered. It demands its own way, not God's.
Most importantly complaining rejects the cross of Christ. Here is the crucial center of the grateful heart's affections. At the cross Jesus took the punishment that we deserve. He did this so that we could enjoy, for all eternity, the reward that he deserves. Faith internalizes this mystery. It confesses that, in light of Jesus' death on the cross, we are never getting what we deserve. No matter how bad our day is going, no matter how disappointed we feel, we are not getting crucifixion, and that is what the gospel says we deserve. The grateful heart confesses this. It confesses that it is always getting better than it deserves.
Paul was intensely convinced of these truths. That is why in his letters he references thanksgiving and gratitude more than any other first century author. For example Colossians 2:6–7 commands us to "Walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving."
Because our children are born with original sin, they are proud. Gratitude does not come easy. In her book The Gift of Thanks, Margaret Visser observes that children must be trained to be grateful. One experiment set out to measure children’s propensity for gratitude. They were placed in a room with their parents. A person entered and gave the child a gift. The children spontaneously said hello and goodbye 27% of the time, but they only thanked their benefactors 7% of the time, and then often only after great pressure from their parents.There is a reason for this. Our children are naturally proud. They are not naturally humble. They think they deserve good treatment.
So what can you do to help your children internalize the discipline of gratitude? Obviously, for small children corporeal punishment is sometimes appropriate. However, it should never be divorced from a clear explanation of the love of God displayed in the gospel as mentioned above. For older children careful instruction and clear reasoning is crucial. This is why gospel-centered parents produce grateful children. (See my book, Gospel Centered Parenting). Whether your children are young or old perseverance is crucial. They will not learn gratitude after one explanation of the gospel. In most cases it will take years of repetition and sweaty perseverance.
For more details on the subject of gratitude, read my new book, The Secret Of Spiritual Joy. I wrote this short book to encourage parents and Christians in every life situation to grow in the discipline of gratitude.
A thankful heart is the secret to Spiritual Joy.