There are tests all around us each and every day. In case you had doubts of any kind, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it crystal clear that we are not in charge or in control of anything other than our own response. As believers, this edict is grounded in our faith, and how we handle these tests and challenges is the essential purpose of our lives. Gratitude can tip the scale from seeing a test or a trial as overwhelming to adjusting our sails to see it as an opportunity, a blessing in and of itself.
Before we get to practices which can instill gratitude in our hearts, it is important to distinguish between thankfulness and gratitude. To be thankful can be seen as a social norm grounded in the habit of good manners. A sense of gratitude takes thankfulness to a higher level as a manifestation of spirituality, love, and affection. Giving thanks on a basic level is an action, while being grateful is a feeling and moral value.
Our own attitude toward gratitude is significantly important to the way our children also think about this sentiment. A large body of research suggests that people who are grateful – adults and children alike – are generally happier, healthier, more engaged with friends and family, and more likely to provide support to others in their communities. It is critical to regularly examine how we can improve in this area, for ourselves and for our children.
Here are 7 ways parents can instill an attitude of gratitude in the hearts of our children.
- Reflect on your own behavior. Children tend to pay attention not only to what we say, but more importantly what we do. Ask yourself the following questions: What kind of behavior are you modeling? When was the last time you said “thank you” to another member of your family? How about your child? What about in public to a stranger - at a store, bank, or park? It is a simple gesture that can have a big impact. Abu Huraira reported that Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Whoever does not thank people has not thanked Allah” (Abu Dawud). Put this Nasihah (advice) into practice yourself.
- Encourage your child to say “thank you” on a regular basis. By encouraging these actions, you are raising consciousness and that is an important first step. When someone does something nice for you or when someone gives you a gift, it is appropriate to acknowledge their action. You can provide your child with reminders as a means of instilling good habits. The more we remind them to say “thank you” out loud, the more they can feel it and realize gratitude down the road. Be sure to also positively reinforce their efforts. Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, has instructed us to say “Alhamdu lillah” (all praise and thanks are for Allah) on a daily basis: "Allah is pleased with His servant if, when he eats something he thanks Allah for it, and when he drinks something he thanks Allah for it" (Muslim).
- See the beauty and wonder in simple things. Children may have a hard time thinking about the big picture, of how many blessings they have in their lives. It is important to move from being thankful for the things people do for us to also appreciating the many gifts that Allah has provided in our daily lives.
We sometimes take these things for granted, especially in the busyness of our daily routines. Make an effort to reflect about your health (ability to see, hear, walk, talk, smell, taste, think, etc.), your safety (comforts of our homes, ability to move about), access to water (for drinking, washing, and recreation) and food that is plentiful (and delicious!) on our tables, in our fridges, and in our markets.
Ponder about the beauty of the natural world: the warmth and light from the sun; the array of colors, flavors, and fragrances in fruits; the animals and insects placed in this world with specific characteristics and purpose. These gifts were provided by Al-Rahman, The Most Merciful, and they are all around us. As the Quran reminds in the Surah that bears the same name, “then which of the favors of your Lord do you deny?” This verse is repeated 31 times in the chapter! And that is because we will never be able to identify all of the blessings that Allah has offered.
- Make time to reflect as a family. Make it a practice to talk about gratitude together. Around the dinner table ask each person to share something that made them happy today. Or ask each person to thank someone for something they did for them. Over time and with older children, you can talk about how to express gratitude in the coming week. Again, you are trying to cultivate a habit that your children will practice on a regular basis. In this small way you can begin to make gratitude a priority in your home.
- Perform acts of kindness. In addition to saying “thank you,” you can encourage your children to show appreciation through their actions. Consider sharing food with a neighbor; help with yard work or to do shopping; return a favor. Make it clear that there are many ways to show people that you are grateful for all they do.
- Look for the good in everything. Some days are harder than others. In these instances, gratitude may not be in the front of your child’s mind. Help them to see there are blessings even in hardship and disappointment. If you think from this perspective about life’s little setbacks, it will be easier to deal with the tougher struggles. For example, if your pet fish has died, your children are likely to be sad. You can acknowledge that feeling, but also mention that you are grateful for the time that you were able to share and the lessons that were learned from taking care of the fish. Be particularly sensitive to the timing here. Asking your child to look for the silver lining immediately after a tough situation can seem insensitive.
- Create a family gratitude project. There can be other ways to get everyone involved in expressing gratitude. Consider creating a family bulletin board where everyone can add notes about what they are thankful for. It can also be a great conversation piece. A gratitude jar can serve the same purpose. Keep the jar and slips of paper accessible. Read over the notes together as a means of celebrating the good things in your lives. There are also a number of Gratitude Scavenger Hunt ideas available online.
Every bit of energy you can put into this task – of instilling an attitude of gratitude into the hearts of your children – is worthy of the effort. Not only are you likely to see the fruits of your labors in front of you, but you will be planting seeds that will be fruitful in the Hereafter, insha Allah (God Willing). And if we work on these efforts one family at a time, imagine the possibilities of multiplying the benefits in our neighborhoods, communities, nations, and our Ummah. At a time when our entire world is in crisis, there is not a second to waste. May Allah shower us with His mercy, energize us to take positive steps forward, and accept our most sincere gratitude for His blessings. Ameen.