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Grounding our children in gratitude

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The holidays are a great time to begin instilling gratitude in your child. And if you want your young one to live a life of contentment, he or she must learn to be genuinely grateful.

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It might be hard to imagine your 13-year-old, who complains about every little thing, actually living a life of gratitude -- but with the right guidance, he can grow up to be a content and grateful adult who serves those around him.

When it comes to instilling a lifelong sense of gratitude in your child, keep the following in mind.

1.) Gratitude doesn't come naturally to our kids.

As a parent, you've probably noticed that gratitude is not a child's natural tendency. But this isn't your child's fault; it's simply how children develop. They are wired to be egocentric, especially when they're young. Children feel the world revolves around them and they focus on their needs, not those of others.

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Since they developmentally lack empathy for others, they have a difficult time being grateful for what they have.

This is important to know about your child because it means you're going to have to be intentional about teaching your child to be grateful. It isn't going to just simply happen. Parents who want to teach gratitude to their kids must first model gratitude for their kids.

Discontented, ungrateful parents usually raise discontented, ungrateful children. Behind every grateful child is a grateful parent who showed them what gratitude looked like and why it was important. As Christmas approaches, make a point of telling your children what you are thankful for and ask them to tell you the same.

2.) Humility matters.

One of the reasons gratitude doesn't naturally arise in our children stems is that much in their lives centers around competition: at school, on the playground, in sports, and in extra-curricular activities. Our kids are encouraged to be the best athlete or student, have the best project or get the best part in the play.

This sends every child a message: Life is about competing and being the best. The message your child really needs to hear is that his value (and the value of his classmates) comes from being created by God and in His eyes -- they are equal. This lesson teaches humility.

When you properly teach your son or daughter to have humility, you level the playing field for him, his friends and classmates. He knows in his heart that superficial competitions are just that -- superficial. Deep down he knows that his value, and his friends' value, lies in something deeper.

So how do you teach humility? You must live it in front of your children. They must see a father respect his coworkers and not gossip about them. They must watch their mother treat the gas station attendant with the same kindness and enthusiasm as she would treat her lawyer. And one of the best ways to teach your child about humility is through serving others.

3.) Experience and actions speak louder than words.

We can talk about different needs -- but unless kids are immersed in it, they don't get it.

I encourage you to expose your children to those who lack food or who are sick or homeless. Hearing about poverty and illness has limited impact, but when kids actually walk among others who have no food, home or health, they change. They begin to see how much they have in contrast to how much this other person doesn't have, and they will feel grateful.

I brought my son with me on a trip to Bolivia with Food for the Hungry, one of my favorite non-profit organizations. The trip was eye-opening for both us because in seeing what others did not have, we became more grateful for what we do have.

Gratitude comes by gaining experience of other people who suffer. When a parent exposes a child to others who have less food, clothing, support, education, whatever -- you're helping instill empathy and gratitude in them.

4.) Consistency is key.

A single experience will eventually wear off, but if you consistently give your child opportunities to serve others who are less fortunate than he, gratitude will become a part of his character. The best way to do this is to involve your kids in a service project. You don't need to go to a third-world country -- simply look around. Your child can help tutor a younger one, work in a soup kitchen, pound nails for a Habitat for Humanity house, grocery-shop for an elderly neighbor, or visit kids in the hospital.

Find out what your child enjoys the most and make it a weekly or monthly habit.

Something happens to us as we teach our kids to be more grateful. We begin to be more grateful. If we are honest, it isn't only kids who need to be more grateful -- it is us. So this Advent, do yourself and your kids a favor. Work as a team to give someone you know (or don't know) a helping hand. Then have a much merrier Christmas.

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for 30 years. She is the author of the online course, "The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids," which is part of The Strong Parent Project.