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Three Steps to Raising Grateful Kids

How can I stop my kids from being entitled, self-centered brats? This is the million dollar question for today’s parents, made more challenging by the entitlement culture that pervades us at every turn. My grandparent’s generation was grateful to have a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs, and an opportunity to better themselves. Today’s generation feels entitled to luxuries, comforts, and happiness as their due. How can we raise our children differently? Is there a path to nurturing attitudes of gratitude as opposed to victimhood?

Fortunately, Parshas Ki Savo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) provides a guide as relevant today as it was three-thousand years ago. Every Jewish farmer in the land of Israel watched his growing crops carefully. As soon as he saw the very first fruit begin to grow, he would tie a ribbon around it to mark it. Later, he would gather all his first fruits into a beautiful basket, and amidst a joyous procession with his neighboring farmers, he would bring the basket to the Holy Temple. Upon arriving, he would offer the first fruits to a priest and vocally proclaim a startling declaration.

“My father (Yaakov/Jacob) was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to Hashem, the God of our ancestors, and Hashem heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. Hashem freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Hashem, have given me.”...And you shall enjoy, together with the [family of the] Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that your God Hashem has bestowed upon you and your household.

Deuteronomy 26:5-11

Why does the farmer speak about events hundreds of years beforehand? Why couldn’t he deliver his first fruits without reviewing ancient history? The answer gets to the core of what it takes to be a person of gratitude. It turns out that gratitude is not the normal human condition. Our nature is to take for granted all the goodness we enjoy and feel resentful when we don’t receive more. Entitlement is our default unless we take conscious steps to develop a sense of gratitude.

The Torah teaches us in these verses three fundamental principles for how we can become people of gratitude and how we can raise our children with an attitude of gratitude.

1. Gratitude must be verbally expressed.

This mitzvah (commandment) of Bikurim (first fruits) is the one commandment that requires audible vocalization. A farmer can’t just feel grateful or use sign language, he must speak his appreciation loudly and clearly. We too, should look for opportunities to thank people, verbally expressing appreciation for things we often take for granted. When we thank people so our own ears hear our words, (even if we don’t originally feel particularly grateful), we are impacted by our words and develop a feeling of gratitude. Seek opportunities to thank your spouse for contributions that you usually take for granted. Meet the mailman at the door and thank him for bringing your mail every day. When another driver lets you merge, don’t just wave your hand, also say aloud, “Thanks for letting me in.” He won’t hear you, but you will hear yourself and your gratitude muscle will be strengthened.

Raising Our Children

To teach gratitude, the most important thing we can do is model gratitude. Let your children hear you thank people and thank God in full sentences often. “Thank you God for opening up this parking space for us right where I wanted to go.”

If you are blessed to parent with a spouse, model thanking your spouse in front of your children. “Thank you for filling the car with gas today. I really appreciate that I don’t have to do it.”

Teach your children to thank others in full sentences. It may not work well to ask them to thank you, but you should certainly remind them to thank others - each other, their other parent, teachers, friend’s parents, the garbage collectors, etc. (Best tip is for each parent to tell the children to thank the other one, “Did you thank Mom for tonight’s delicious dinner?” works much better than “Thank me for dinner.”)

2. Gratitude is in the details.

The farmer recites a full paragraph detailing all the good God gave him with details spanning hundreds of years of history. “Thanks for everything” doesn’t mean nearly as much as “Thank you for having us over for dinner. The chicken was so flavorful and I loved the chocolate cake.” Thank people in full sentences and with detail. It is most likely that as the farmer plowed, planted, and harvested, he was not thinking gratefully about the historical factors that led to him farming the land. By verbally acknowledging that even long ago events contributed to his current crop, he becomes aware of how much God has done for him, and is filled with gratitude. When we thank someone for the details of their kindness, we feel gratitude for each detail.

Raising Our Children

When you teach your children to say thank you, teach them to use full sentences and if possible stress one particular aspect of the gift for which they are grateful. One of my daughter’s friends wrote me a note thanking me for facilitating their friendship by driving the girls back and forth between our two houses regularly. The detail she added makes me smile every time I get in the car to drive to her home. Her thank you is so much more meaningful to me because of her added detail.

3. Giving begets gratitude.

The farmer is obligated to enjoy his bounty while also sharing it with others. Giving to other people inspires us to feel grateful for our blessings. Look for ways your family can give to others. Visit an elderly neighbor, bake cookies and bring them to others, invite friends for dinner, run an errand for someone ill - the opportunities to be of service to others are all around us. The more we give to others, the more we become aware of our own blessings, and feel grateful for them.

Raising Our Children

Even young children can give to others. In fact, that is the age when they are most eager to do so! When your toddler paints a picture, let him dictate a note to Grandma for you to write on the back of the painting, and then send it as a gift in the mail. Find ways your children can give to others - encourage them to occasionally shovel a neighbor’s walk, or babysit a friend’s children as a gift instead of a job. Bring your children along with you when you do a favor for others - volunteering and giving can be part of your family culture.

Share your thoughts! How do you develop your gratitude muscle and how do you teach your children to be grateful?

Last chance to join me at my webinar, Thriving With Teenagers! We will explore adolescence, and how you can parent wisely and sensitively while staying sane and joyful during the sometimes turbulent teen years. Video recording and handouts will be sent to all registrants.


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