Teaching Our Children to Thank God


When I heard my parents say this to me as a kid, it usually did not mean that I hadn’t spoken loudly enough. It usually meant that I hadn’t said anything at all. If mom or dad bought us an ice cream on a hot day or took us out for a cheeseburger at lunch, we’d eagerly hold out our hands and take what was offered to us. Unfortunately, I’d sometimes be so focused on licking the ice cream cone or unwrapping the cheeseburger that I didn’t bother to say thank you. So, as soon as mom or dad said “Pardon?” I knew that I’d better make sure to say “Thank you!”

Lose the self-focus

It’s sad but true that although we receive many gifts from God each new day, we don’t always express our gratitude to God. Gratitude does not come naturally to us (or to our children) and so we must learn it. We must learn to teach our children to pray prayers of thanksgiving to God. A prayer life lacking gratitude turns us inward, focusing only on ourselves, our wants, and our needs. While asking God for what we need is a necessary part of our prayer life, prayers that mostly revolve around asking for what we want can leave us focused on our discontent and unsatisfied because our mind dwells on what we don’t yet have.

Reset your perspective

In Colossians 3:15-17, Paul encourages the church to “let the peace of Christ rule in their hearts,” meaning that the beauty of God’s work in Christ at the cross must so capture our hearts and lives that it begins to shape every part of how we live. No less than three times in the next few sentences, Paul urges us to “be thankful,” to sing “with gratitude” and to “give thanks to God the Father.” Gratitude is a key way we experience the peace of God ruling over us. Importantly, gratitude expands our horizons, raising our awareness of the many gifts that God has given us. Imagine what this might look like for our children! We can encourage them to be grateful for gym teachers who challenge them to push themselves physically, and for the beauty of the palette in a box of crayons. We can model for them thankfulness for grilled cheese sandwiches, and for the awe of a night sky filled with stars. We can say thank you to God for the joy of sharing secrets with a best friend, and the care God shows us as we bike to school.

A funny thing happens as we express thankfulness to God: we begin to feel joyful. Perhaps this is why God’s word has to command us to be grateful. If we wait until we feel thankful to express gratitude to God, we may rarely say a word of thanks. But if we honor God’s word, expressing thankfulness regardless of how we feel, we soon discover that the feelings of joy and gratitude follow soon after. No wonder learning to pray our thanks to God is so vital!

Learning to say thank you

How can you grow the habit of thankfulness? Speaking our gratefulness to God takes a deliberate effort. Here are some simple ideas to help you and your children deepen your prayer life with God by including thankfulness.

Get detailed

Make a (specific!) list: sharing gifts together as a family can provide an opportunity to talk about what to pray about. Perhaps your family has daily or weekly devotion times where you pray together. Such a time can create a space to name what each person is thankful for. Early on, it may be tempting to simply “thank God for all our blessings,” which is a good start, but the phrase lacks specificity. Encourage your family to name some concrete examples of what they are feeling especially grateful for.

Acknowledge the material and spiritual

We might forget that the gifts that we enjoy from God include both material blessings and spiritual blessings. Learning to recognize God’s care for us when we are discouraged, his patience with us when we fall short, or his love for us in Christ are all spiritual blessings for which God deserves our gratitude. Additionally, giving thanks to God for an good grade on an exam, a warm bed, an enjoyable family vacation, and friends to hang out with are also gifts from God. Encourage your family to identify both the spiritual and material gifts from God’s hand.

Even in trials

It’s infinitely easier to pray prayers of gratitude when life is good. Can we express joy in adversity and hard times? James 1:2 challenges us to “consider it pure joy when we face trials of any kind” (the words “joy” and “thankfulness” are similar in the New Testament). We must be sensitive and careful when approaching this, but learning to look for things in which to be joyful and grateful even in adversity can remind us that even hardship can be God’s gift to refine us and help us to grow. When your daughter doesn’t make the team, or your son breaks his arm playing with his friends, God can still be at work. We can let our kids know that we are thankful for the way they handle their disappointment, or for how brave they were when they were getting their arm X-rayed.

I usually only needed one reminder: “Pardon?” was quickly met with a chorus of “Thank You!” Gratitude might not come naturally to us, but thankfulness to God is a prayerful way in which we experience the joy of God’s peace with us in Christ. As a family, grow in your gratitude to God as you pray to him.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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