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BIS LIVES Blog

More than Saying Thank You: Cultivating Gratitude in Our Teenage Children

how to teach teenagers to be thankful

In 1 Thessalonians, we read, “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1Thessalonians 5:18).

But trying to teach that lesson to teenagers? Well, that can be easier said than done.

My family was out to dinner at our favorite Mexican spot a couple weeks ago. We were all talking and laughing over chips and salsa, waiting for our order to be delivered to our table when the waitress made the rounds to see if we needed anything more to drink. After asking our permission, our boys held up their cups and told her what they had ordered. Smiling, she grabbed their cups and went off to refill them.

“Guys,” my husband said, “did you forget something?”

“Ummmmmm…” was their typical teenage response.

“Please? Thank you? Just because she offered to do that for you doesn’t mean you get to forget your manners,” he reminded them.

More than Manners

And so it goes when you’re raising teenagers. You spend years concentrating on their pleases and thank yous and drilling manners into their heads only to have them on the very verge of being grown…and they forget it all.

Well, I shouldn’t say that. They don’t forget it all—far from it! In truth, they’ve internalized all of those lessons we’ve given them. But somewhere in their egocentric teenage psyches, it simply gets hidden by other stuff.

But why is that, and why is it so important? How do we pull gratitude back to the forefront? And how do we make it something that is more second nature than forgotten habit?

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Social Cues

If you really think about it, today’s society isn’t exactly conducive to an overabundance of gratefulness. The majority of us are blessed in that our basic needs are met. We have the shelter, food, and clothing that we need to survive.

But we—and our kids—are constantly being told that what we do have isn’t enough. Essentially, our wants are being made into needs.

Society, social media, and the constant barrage of advertisements they entail teach our kids entitlement. And what is entitlement other than a constant feeling of not being, having, doing enough? It’s all about comparison and focusing on the negative about themselves and others.

What’s So Good about Gratitude?

Teaching our kids to think from a place of gratitude, though, brings them out of themselves! It brings them to an exterior focus on what is good in their own life and that of others.

Learning gratitude can help teens feel less isolated. It helps them grow in self-worth and makes them feel like they matter.

You see, what we exude is what we invite. If we exude appreciation of others, they will feel that and return it back to us. If we value ourselves, others will see that and respond in kind. And if we pour gratitude into our relationships, others will feel valued and the cycle will continue.

Habits of Gratitude

Just like we can’t expect our teens to do their algebra without knowing basic math facts or read Shakespeare without having learned phonics, we can’t expect them to learn gratitude without having been taught basic manners.

But just like those basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic grow along with our kids, they need to expand their exercise of gratitude as well. Here are a few ideas of how we can help them to do that:

Counter “don’t haves” with “do haves”!

Instead of saying “I don’t have the coolest shoes,” we help them reframe that to, “I have shoes that are the color that I really wanted.”

Instead of, “Why can’t we have a gigantic TV like the Smith family does?” we help them find something good to say about their own situation. It’s all about “accentuating the positive” as the old song goes!

Change “I have to” to “I get to”.

“I have to do my homework before I go out with my friends,” becomes, “I get to go out with my friends once my homework is done.”

Actively give thanks.

Simply saying something out loud makes it more real, right? Keep reminding your teens about their manners when they forget. But don’t overlook the larger gestures, too!

What about a “thank you FaceTime” instead of a thank you note? Getting my kids to sit down and handwrite a note is akin to torture, but making a PowerPoint slide or funny video? That’s definitely more up their alley.

Pay it forward!

When my oldest started driving, all of a sudden fast food gift cards became a hot item. Show them how to pay it forward in the drive-thru line and they’ll love how good they feel when they share the wealth.

Get out and volunteer!

When our kids are exposed to those with less than they have, their eyes are opened to all of the blessings they’ve been given. Food banks, local schools and sports organizations, and care facilities are all excellent places to look for opportunities.

In the Everyday

While some teens are all about the grand gestures, some are more comfortable in the quiet moments. See, gratitude in the teen years can also be shown simply by thinking of others before yourself. It can look like offering a snack to a friend who comes over instead of just grabbing one for themselves. Maybe they remember to hold the door open for whoever is following behind them or jumping up to help someone before being asked. Or, unlike my goofballs I mentioned earlier, it can also look like remembering to show good manners and gratitude to someone for doing their job and doing it well.

This Season of Wanting and Giving

As we dive headlong into what I fondly refer to as “Gimme Season” (or, alternately, the “Month of I Wants”), let’s do our best to carry the spirit of Thanksgiving and gratitude forward. Maybe choose one of the gratitude habits to work on with your teen or, hey, even in yourself!

Like so many of these lessons we try to teach our kids, this one can seem never ending.  But the reward is so worth the work, don’t you agree? Because, like the Bible says,

Train the young in the way they should go; even when old, they will not swerve from it. -Proverbs 22:6

That’s the prayer and the goal, sisters, isn’t it? Here’s to fighting the good fight, living as example, and being grateful in all circumstances…even (especially!) the teen years.

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Beth Williby is a regular contributor to the BIS blog. She is a mom of four pretty amazing humans and has been married to her college sweetheart for almost twenty years. She does her best praying through singing and feeding the people she loves. Having grown up in the Midwest, she now calls Northeast Florida home. You can find out more about her here.

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