Help your children grow up to be thankful for what they have.
“Mommy, I really, really want that new toy! Plllleeease buy it for me!”
“Dad, I’m the only one in my class without a smartphone. Why can’t I have one?”
“Come on, Mom, I really need a better bike. Don’t make me ride the old one!”
The “gimme syndrome”
If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard these kind of pleas. I definitely have. My sons are now in their early 20s and are quite content young men, but I remember having to confront the “gimme syndrome” when they were growing up. It seems there was always a television commercial, in-store display or classmate telling them they needed newer, better or more toys, electronics or sporting equipment.
Truth be told, it can be a huge challenge to raise contented kids, let alone stay content ourselves. By nature, we human beings always seem to want what we don’t or can’t have. On top of that, we are literally bombarded by advertising messages on our TVs, computer screens and phones, urging us to buy the latest fashions, designer jeans, computers and gadgets. Digital marketing experts estimate that the average American is exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements every day, fueling attitudes of materialism and discontentment in kids and adults alike.
Social media can also come into play. When friends post updates about their amazing personal accomplishments, lavish vacations or seemingly perfect families or social lives, even if we know we’re only seeing a tiny slice of what’s going on in their lives, it can get us thinking about all the things we don’t have or are missing out on.
Of course, desiring more or something else isn’t always bad. But it is harmful if we can’t be satisfied without it. Looking through the Bible, we can see countless examples of people who were destroyed by discontentment, jealousy and restlessness.
Certainly there is also a great deal in God’s Word exhorting us to take on the exact opposite mind-set. We’re told in Luke 12:15 to “take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” Hebrews 13:5 tells us, “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have.” And 1 Timothy 6:6 says, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.”
When we’re content, we are satisfied and at peace with our present situation or status in life. We don’t need anything else to feel “whole.” Contentment is an internal state of mind that delights and finds joy in whatever God has provided us.
How to teach contentment
So what’s the best way to instill contentment in your kids? This partially depends on their age. If you’ve got preschoolers, you may focus on curbing the “gimmes” and teaching them to be thankful for what they have. As kids get older, you can help them understand that contentment is a matter of trusting that God will supply our needs and that He knows what’s best for us.
There are many ways to accomplish this, but here’s what worked for me when my sons were growing up:
- Practice gratitude.
The No. 1 antidote to discontentment is gratitude. If I thought my kids were dwelling too much on what they didn’t or couldn’t have, I’d ask them to start naming all the good things they had to be thankful for, and that usually turned their thinking around. Gratitude has a way of cultivating contentment, because it encourages us to take note of all the ways God has blessed us.
The No. 1 antidote to discontentment is gratitude. Some parents are very proactive about this. You might have your kids start gratitude journals, where they build a running list of what they are thankful for, and each day they add two or three new entries. Then when they’re having a not-so-great day, you can have them look over their journals, and that will remind them of their blessings.
Try to work gratitude into your daily conversation: “I am so thankful to be able to have a garden.” “We should be so grateful that we have a house with clean running water. A lot of families in this world don’t have that.”
Teach your kids to appreciate the beauty all around them: singing birds in the trees, a freshly fallen snowfall, wildflowers in the backyard, a pleasant summer breeze. This will encourage them to focus on what’s positive.
You can also set aside special times each day to express appreciation. Before morning or bedtime prayers, ask your kids to think of three blessings they can thank God for. At the start of dinner, have every family member name at least one thing he or she is grateful for. Do this not only when everything is going great, but even when your kids are struggling with disappointments. By getting into the habit of acknowledging their blessings even during difficult times, kids can learn to be content in any situation they face.
- Give and serve together as a family.
Encourage your children to use their time, talents and resources to help those in need (Romans 12:3-13). When we serve other people, we develop an attitude of contentment because it gets us to stop dwelling on our own wants and desires, and instead focus on the genuine needs of others.
I know several families who volunteer at community service organizations. One collects donations of canned goods for their local food bank. Another family drives a weekly “Meals on Wheels” route together. A third organizes a game night once a month at a senior living center.
A friend of mine contacted a hospital in her area to see if it would be okay for her daughters, then 10- and 12-years-old, to deliver homemade get-well cards for the children in the pediatric unit. When she got the go-ahead, she and her daughters spent a day making the cards and another afternoon delivering the cards to the young patients, many of whom were seriously ill.
“Before we did this, my girls were upset about some things going on in their personal lives, but afterwards, they were just grateful for their good health,” my friend relates.
But service doesn’t need to be via a formal institution or service organization. When my sons were growing up, we taught them to be on the lookout for people who might need help, and together we’d reach out to them. That may have meant delivering a meal to a sick friend, visiting an elderly shut-in, or shoveling the driveway for the widow next door. Whenever my kids started helping others, they couldn’t help but see how much they had to be thankful for.
- Discourage comparisons.
The fact is, we will always encounter people who live in bigger houses, wear nicer clothes or are more popular, talented or intelligent. If you see your kids comparing themselves with their peers and feeling discontented because they’ve been outshone, it’s time to step in. Talk with them about the dangers of comparing our lives with others.
Encourage your kids to be happy for their peers when they see them enjoying their blessings and accomplishments, and tell them why they should not feel a sense of lack because they don’t have those exact same things. Remind them that God works with everyone differently, and we all have our own talents and strengths. Explain that everything we have comes from God, and He gives us what we need, when we need it.
- Limit materialistic influences.
When my two sons were young, I quickly learned it wasn’t a good idea to pile them into the double stroller and go “window shopping” around the mall. Suddenly, they were seeing all kinds of toys that they desperately wanted—toys they didn’t even know existed before the trip to the mall. Limiting their exposure to all the “stuff” for sale in stores helped keep discontentment at bay.
Similarly, when they hit their teen years and wanted to spend the afternoon roaming the mall with friends, unless they were going there to buy something they truly needed, I tried to steer them toward a nonmaterialistic activity, such as going on a walk together or playing board games.
Don’t forget advertising’s influence. Some parents only allow their kids to watch ad-free television or put a DVD in instead, to reduce the number of commercials coming at them. This can be effective to a point. However with advertising being so ubiquitous, you won’t be able to totally shield your children from it.
Instead, teach your kids about the goals of marketers: that they’re in business to sell products and make us think we “need” something, when most likely we don’t. Talk about the ads you see: “Do you really think those shoes will help you play basketball better?” “Do you think that toy is really as good as it looks in the commercial?”
Studies have shown that when parents make evaluative comments about the advertisements their children are exposed to, it decreases their children’s desire for those products.
- Model contentment.
Ultimately, the most important way to teach your kids to be content is to be that way yourself. Your children are watching your example. If you are satisfied with what you have, they probably will be satisfied with what they have too. On the other hand, if you are never happy with your life, your children will likely adopt the same mind-set.
We should heed the words of the apostle Paul: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty” (Philippians 4:11-12, New Revised Standard Version). We must trust God as He direct our paths. We not only need to pray about the various situations and decisions we face, but also be at peace with His answers—even when it isn’t what we want to hear. That is the essence of biblical contentment and what we should be modeling for our kids.
None of us will do this perfectly. Still, we need to be striving to live this way. It doesn’t matter how much money we have, what size of house we live in or what type of work we do, we can and must look for the positives, be grateful and choose to be content. When we do, we’ll be teaching our kids to do the same.