Thankful or Self-Entitled? Raising Kids Who Show Gratitude

Thanks You

Children adept at offering timely and authentic thanks demonstrate rich character and along the way exude an almost magnetic charm. It is not surprising that people prefer to engage with kids who freely recognize and appreciate efforts made on their behalf, especially when compared with children straitjacketed by self-entitlement.

Picture your family: Which description applies to the children you see?

Without clear guidance, most children don’t express appreciation for people who serve them—those who provide for their basic needs, orchestrate fun experiences, help them learn, give them a gift, or make lunch. Every birthday, Christmas, or any other time our children receive a gift, my wife encourages Scott and Erin to write thank-you notes. Full disclosure: Becky gives them a no-choice directive, because we both believe this is a skill that kids will fail to develop independent of strong guidance.

Schools don’t teach thankfulness; but then, schools aren’t responsible for raising our children. Nor is the children’s ministry at church, which primarily points thankful hearts toward heaven while playing a supplemental role to parents in nurturing kids toward maturity. If our kids can’t express their appreciation, people will eventually believe that they aren’t appreciative.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him — and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”  – Luke 17:15–19

Becky knows that true appreciation must result in action. She passionately insists that our children grow up to routinely express appreciation; they will treat it as if it’s as normal as brushing teeth. If they can organize and express specific thoughts on paper, they’ll more effectively articulate hearty thanks on the phone and in person.

To jot a simple note on kid-friendly stationery within a forty-eight-hour response window requires little investment by you or your child. But other people will feel great about whatever kind act they performed, and your child will develop valuable, life-long thanking skills. That’s what happens when children learn to appreciate those who serve them and that’s why my wife’s simple approach is worth mimicking:

3 Tips to Help Children Appreciate Those Who Serve Them

1. Feel Grateful

Life comes at children fast because so many experiences are completely new to them. Just like a guide on a tour bus, make it your role to point out important sights for kids to notice. The coach, the teacher, the waitress, the crossing guard, the bus driver, a generous grandparent, even a sister — constantly draw attention to these people and their acts of service. Then watch your son’s ability to feel appreciation grow. Yes, children can feel authentic appreciation, but only after you teach them to notice the people who serve — or sacrifice — for them.

2. Say Thanks

There is no doubt that the words “thank you” lift the spirits of those who hear them. But what difference do those two words make on the sender? A New York Daily News article reports “Teaching your kids to say ‘thank you’ can actually be good for their health.” Along with healthy eating habits, healthy thanking habits should start early. Watch how often you hear your child express appreciation for someone who’s done something for her. If she doesn’t say thank you when you’re nearby, assume that she doesn’t when you’re nowhere close. Then self-examine your own habits in the gratitude department. She learns to say thank you through the example you provide. Do you thank the person who hands you chicken nuggets in the drive-through?

3. Show Appreciation

Does every member of your family appreciate the others, or does ridicule rule the day? The latter option stands as the honest answer in way too many families. To authentically show appreciation — to overflow with thankfulness — requires action above expectations. A family that says “Thanks for dinner, Mom” exhibits good manners. But “We appreciate you so much we’ll do the dirty work” shows appreciation that will light up a mom’s heart.

Write a note, notice a coach’s efforts, say thank you, load the dishwasher — all of these relatively easy tasks exceed today’s common expectations. And every day, such responses inch closer to extinction in our culture of self-entitlement and me-centricity. Fortunately, parents can easily take these and other acts of appreciation off the endangered species list through consistent modeling and positive reinforcement. Imagine what happens in a young heart when a parent says, “I heard you say thank you to the bus driver today. Way to go! In that moment you probably made her day — because you definitely made mine!”

Your child will stand out from the crowd when she appreciates anyone who serves her. Help her see these moments of opportunity as moments well spent.

The first three words of the Golden Rule found in Matthew 7, “Do unto others,” describe a critical step in transforming a person from a consumer to a contributor. Indeed, for a child to develop compassion for the world around her, she must have an ability and a willingness to actively look for opportunities to meet others’ needs — and then to take action.

The secret to helping her achieve success? Constant encouragement.

At first, a child will believe that serving someone else feels good. Eventually, it becomes a normal feeling — even a great habit!

Your Turn

Think about the most recent time your child served someone else without your prompting. How can you further encourage your child to appreciate those who serve them?

David Staal

David Staal serves as the president of Kids Hope USA, a national non-profit organization that partners local churches with elementary schools to provide mentors for at-risk students. Prior to this assignment, David led Promiseland, the children’s ministry at Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois. Other leadership roles he held at Willow Creek include director of communications and director of children's ministry for the Willow Creek Association. David authored Word Kids Need to Hear (2008), Leading Your Child to Jesus and Leading Kids to Jesus (2006), and Making Your Children’s Ministry the Best Hour of Every Kid’s Week (2004, co-authored with Sue Miller). David also serves as the senior editor of Today’s Children’s Ministry, an electronic publication and web site from Christianity Today International. He lives in Grand Haven, MI, with his wife Becky, son Scott, and daughter Erin.

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