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Cultivating a Thankful Heart

October 30, 2009

It was a rude awakening.  It was Christmas morning and there were lots of presents under the tree.  I specifically remember someone had given us a lovely dollhouse that we saved to give the girls for Christmas.  I wrapped many small things individually so that they would have more things to open.  That’s fun, right?  Well after each present, the girls would say, “What’s next?” without even acknowledging the present they had just opened.  Harold and I were dumbfounded.  Who were these ungrateful little things that resembled our precious daughters and how did they get this way?  Their attitudes concerned us so much that we began to make some changes at home, making a concerted effort to grow daughters who would become grateful and thankful for even the little things in life.  We weren’t looking for an instant fix, we needed a lifestyle change and a lot of prayer!  Here are a few of the changes we made in our family.

Three Gifts
I had heard of families who gave their children three gifts, but I didn’t want to be one of them.  I like giving my children presents.  How could I ever limit myself to three!  Would the girls be angry?  Would we ruin them?  Then we started calculating how many gifts our girls actually received:  several from Harold’s parents, several from my parents, and several from aunts and uncles.  They weren’t lacking presents to open.  Harold and I decided that Harold and I would give each girl only three gifts the next Christmas.  We talked to the girls and prepared them in advance so they wouldn’t be disappointed.  Our Christmas the following year was a precious time of excitement.  No one asked what was next, because they could count to three!  And so, the “Three Gift Policy” was adopted.

Over the years our “Three Gift Policy” has changed slightly.  It may change again, but in 2009, this is how it looks.  On the day we decorate the Christmas tree, the girls receive an ornament representing the past year.  (More about that tradition in December’s newsletter!)  Then on Christmas Day, the girls have three presents to open from us as well as a small present in their stocking.  (Sometimes they have more than three gifts from us, but they each have four to open, if you include the stocking.  Depending on the budget, I may combine two similar gifts such as a portable CD player and a CD or a sewing basket filled with a sewing kit.)

The girls also buy gifts for each other.  I used to take them to Dollar Tree, but now they save up their own money and ask me to take them to specific shops, including the thrift store.  I love seeing what they choose for each other, taking time to consider their budget and their sisters’ desires.

Several of the girls have expressed to us that they would like to use the “Three Gift Policy” with their own children, providing their husband is in agreement.  I am grateful God showed us another way.  Our Christmas is filled with so much joy.  And I thought it might ruin them.

Start a Modeling Career
When I first noticed my ungrateful girls, God challenged me to examine my own heart.  Was I content with what God had given me?  What attitude was I portraying to my girls?  What was the message I was sending with my words?  “If only we could afford…”, “I wish we could…”, “I wish we had…”  I was the one who was setting the tone of my home.  As I began to speak from a grateful heart about my thankfulness for beautiful sunsets, parking spaces close to the door, and answered prayers, I discovered that the words of my daughters began to echo my own grateful heart.

I was also convicted about another area of my speech.  It’s easy to become so familiar with each other that you neglect the simple kindnesses of life.  We try very hard to always use please and thank you with each other, even when we’re at home.  Certainly the words are not always attached to the true heart of thankfulness, but it does encourage an awareness of being grateful and thankful for what someone else has done for you.

Put off Hindrances
A few months after the Christmas fiasco, we made some changes to our daily life.  We discontinued watching broadcast television.  Without the constant barrage of commercials I found that the girls were more content with what they had and weren’t constantly asking for something.  When I asked them to make a Christmas list the following year, they had a difficult thing thinking of what they wanted!  We also limited our shopping trips, especially to the mall.  When one of our daughters was about seven, she would walk through the store picking up things and saying, “Mom, we really need this!”  I would remind her why we didn’t really need that and then she’d find something else.  I’m happy to say that today, she has a grateful heart and is very careful how she spends her money.

Lastly, we limited catalogs which reminded the girls of what they didn’t have.  I like to shop online (avoiding the stores) so I receive many catalogs, especially around Christmas time.  The girls would take the catalogs and begin to highlight what they wanted, or “needed” as they would sometimes say.  Limiting the catalogs made the girls grateful for whatever our budget could afford.

“No Choice Days”
Somewhere around the age of four, our oldest daughter, Victoria, decided that she was ready to make decisions.  She never said it in those words, but all of a sudden everything we chose wasn’t what she wanted.  She wanted to wear that dress; she wanted to watch that video; she didn’t want to eat that for breakfast.  We were first-time parents and bought into it for a little while, giving her two acceptable choices and allowing her to make the decision.  She grew increasingly ungrateful.  Then we began to institute “no choice” days—mom or dad chose everything including what to eat, what to wear, what to do.

Over the years, every one of the girls would discover “no choice” days.  Sometimes we had “no choice” weeks, sometimes just one day in a month. Generally, we had “no choice” days until I could see a thankful and grateful heart for what I chose.  I found that as the girls became content with our choices,   they became grateful for the simple pleasures in life.

Cheerful Givers
I really like to give gifts to people—not just any gift, but the perfect gift that you know fits them perfectly.  Even when our income was not great, we made sure to give generous gifts to others.  We weren’t looking to draw attention to ourselves or gain some approval, we were merely making a point to our children that these people are valuable to God and they’re valuable to us.  We looked for opportunities to give.  We gave away clothes the girls grew out of.  We’d ask them, “Who does this look like?” and they would name a friend.  (It’s fun to see who’s wearing their dresses on Sunday morning!) As the girls grew, they would often find something at a store and say, “Can we buy this for _______?”  If it was within reason in the budget, we purchased it or made it.  Sometimes the gifts weren’t for an occasion, they were just because.  Now, the girls use their own money to buy special things for friends for birthdays, for Christmas, or just because they see something their friend would really like.

One Thankful Bite
Years ago I was having a conversation with my friend Yvette about our children, mealtime, and how to handle food they didn’t like.  She told me about her mother’s plan, the same plan she used with her own children.  Each child is required to eat one bite of each dish that is served, even the dishes that the child “doesn’t prefer.”  This was called their “one thankful bite.”  This would stretch their taste buds a bit and encourage them to be thankful for the food they had without a lengthy diatribe on the conditions of children in Africa.  Yvette’s plan has served our family well.  Some still don’t like mashed potatoes, but others have learned to like things they snarled their nose at five years ago.

An Old-Fashioned Tradition
I started early helping my children write thank you notes for gifts they had received.  When they were very young, they wrote some scribble, then advanced to drawing pictures and eventually to copying the words I had written from their dictation.  My friend Kim has really mastered this.  I’ve known her for nearly ten years and she has taught her three daughters well.  Over the years, I don’t think a time has gone by when we haven’t received a thank you note for a gift we’ve given to one of the girls.  Each of her daughters has their own stationary, return address labels, stamps, and a 3×5 card box with addresses of friends and family.  My girls are much better at thank you’s than I am.  I am great at writing the thank you notes, but somehow there’s a disconnect and they don’t get in the mail!  I’m still working on that…

A Marathon, Not a Sprint
Keep in mind that cultivating a grateful and thankful heart doesn’t just happen.  It takes intentional focus and consistency on your part.  Sometimes it seems like it gets worse before it gets better!  Don’t give up.  A change in perspective doesn’t happen overnight.  As I like to say, raising godly children isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.  It takes determination and focus on the goal which can be miles away!

Today, our daughters are certainly not perfect, but I can say that they are thankful and grateful for even the smallest things.  They don’t give me wish lists for Christmas or birthdays and they are genuinely excited for whatever we choose.  They don’t have the latest and greatest clothes or electronics, but they’re content.  They say please and thank you to each other, and most of the time I don’t even have to remind them!

If you feel that your family is in need of a grateful heart transformation, talk with your husband and make a plan to add one or two things to cultivate thankful hearts.  There are certainly more ideas than what I’ve listed here.  God is faithful and He will give you the perfect ideas for your family.  Happy Thanksgiving!

If you have ideas that you’d like to share with the readers of the newsletter, please send them to joy@Daughters4God.com and write “Ideas” in the subject line.

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