An Attitude of Gratitude: Inspiring Families to Give Thanks
What comes to mind when you think about the holidays? Maybe it’s the chiming of cash registers, or perhaps it’s a never-ending chorus of, “Mom, I want this.” Year after year, the holiday season becomes increasingly commercialized, even in the hearts of our children. From writing page-long Christmas lists to counting the gifts under the tree, even the most kind-hearted kids show flashes of selfishness during the holiday season. As parents, how can we lead our children in shifting from a spirit of greed to one of gratitude?
Kanakuk Kamps K-1 Women’s Director Melissa Houston is no stranger to the challenges of parenting through the holidays. The mom of six kids, ranging in age from 5 to 15, aspires to instill an attitude of selflessness in her family’s holiday celebrations. Here’s a look at the tips, activities and traditions Houston uses to keep her family focused on gratitude rather than “want-itude.”
Every family has a unique strategy when it comes to gift giving. In some homes, kids find loads of presents under the Christmas tree; in others, each child receives just a few gifts. Instead of pleasing their children with everything they asked for, Houston and her husband want their kids to understand what sacrificing for others feels like. As Christmas approaches each year, the Houston family gathers in a circle and each child draws the name of one of their siblings for whom they will purchase a gift. The children decide on a dollar amount for their gifts and stick to it. Each child is responsible for buying his or her sibling’s gift with his or her own hard-earned money, which Houston says gives her children a healthy appreciation for sacrifice.
Sometimes instead of buying gifts for each other the Houston children pool their money to bless someone in the community. One year the kids gave their collective gift money to Brenda, their favorite waitress at the neighborhood pizza restaurant.
“They delight in giving over receiving,” Houston shares. Even her 5-year-old is eagerly doing chores to raise money for her sibling’s Christmas gift. Parents can incorporate this behavior into
their households by asking the question: How can I make giving to others fun for my kids?
Houston says the key to selflessness is empathy: “Empathy will lead your kids to a heart of gratitude for what they do have. It’s hard to be thankful if you can’t put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see your blessings from a different perspective.”
That empathetic lifestyle starts with parents! Kids need examples of what empathy and selflessness look like in practice. Parents often lament kids mimicking bad habits, but they copy the good ones, too. Houston advises parents to start purposeful conversations with their kids.
“Anytime we see someone on the side of the road, I ask my kids, ‘What if we were homeless? How would we stick together? How would that make you feel?’” says Houston. “Then I ask, ‘How could we help that person?’”
Getting kids to think about the people around them who are facing tough situations and how they could potentially help them can have a tremendous impact on how they perceive and interact with the world around them. Houston brings home values from work, too. As a women’s director at Kanakuk Kamps, she says approaching the world with selflessness relates directly to Kanakuk’s
overarching value: “I’m third,” meaning “God first, others second, I’m third.”
During each meal, campers are expected to serve the person next to them before serving food to themselves. According to Houston, this is just one way they teach campers to maintain a selfless lifestyle, and she even implements this method in her own kitchen. Though a small habit at first, encouraging kids to serve their siblings, or parents, before grabbing a heaping scoop of mac ‘n cheese for themselves creates values children will carry with them into adulthood.
The End Game
Building good character begins at home, with parents taking the time and making the effort to establish and encourage values. This can be challenging, especially around the holidays when children have one thing on their minds: their wish lists. No parent wants to tell their children they can’t have everything they want, but parents can be intentional about leading kids to appreciate all they have in this season and beyond. Houston doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that it is hard to implement these habits, especially around Christmastime.
“All of the hard decisions and intentional choices you make now will pay off in the long run,” said Houston. “I have to keep that in mind when I tell my kids, ‘You can’t have that.’ It’s worth it, though, to raise a child of good character.”
Editor’s note: As giving experiences over material goods has become increasingly popular in recent years, some parents find the holidays a great time to gift upcoming summer camp tuition to their kids. Kanakuk offers sleep-away and day camp experiences for kids ages 6 to 18, or weeklong summer camp for the whole family.