Bushes run the length of the back of my house. One spring, I should have trimmed them about six weeks before I did. I had a good excuse. I noticed a bird’s nest and knew the mother and soon-to-hatch-baby would be disturbed by the trim job. So, I waited.

After I knew the baby had successfully hatched, I set out on a Saturday morning to trim the bushes. Halfway through the process, I spotted another nest. As I lifted it out, I was intrigued by the bird’s use of trash as it was woven with the grasses and twigs to form a sturdy home.

I carefully wrapped the nest in saran wrap, placed it in a small plastic bag, and delivered it to home-schooling friends in church the next morning.

Several days later I received a thank you email from the mom. She explained how she and her husband took advantage of the teachable moment and talked with the girls about how trash and treasure can be the same thing depending on whose eyes we are looking through (e.g., the eyes of man, the eyes of a bird, or the eyes of God).

Two weeks after I gave the nest to this family, I saw the two girls in church. When the six-year-old noticed me, she excitedly shouted, “Thanks for the cool nest!” I was impressed! She wasn’t prompted to say “thanks” and she didn’t do it to impress her parents. They weren’t nearby. She was more than polite; she was grateful. And, she chose to express it.

A few days later, I saw the Mom and had a chance to tell her about her daughter’s expression of gratitude. It brought tears to her eyes, as she and her husband are strategically parenting to instill values like thankfulness. She was thrilled to hear of her daughter’s confident interaction with me and expression of thanks.

I know many children and teens who don’t say “thank you.” What made the difference here? These parents are teaching more than polite behavior. They’re instructing their daughters in the why and how of various virtues, including gratefulness. Think about it this way: Does telling children to say thank you, and having them say it, mean they’re thankful? Not necessarily. It might just mean they’re obedient and polite. As a friend of mine said, “A ‘thank you’ that comes as a result of demands is not gratitude; it’s manners. Gratitude is more important.”

Second, these parents are also good role models. I know this because I was sent a much-appreciated thank you note. I’ve observed that they prioritize right relationships, which includes saying “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” And, I know they freely express their gratitude to God. Their daughters are fortunate to be raised without hypocrisy. It appears that their parents’ walk and talk match.

Third, this family reaches out and shares their talents, interests, and money with others. Having more isn’t their goal. Rather, they’re interested in sharing what they have. The mom directs our Wednesday night program for young children. The dad is working with two other men to form a new non-profit to benefit others. And the girl who thanked me for the nest donated cash and gifts for children and teens I would be speaking to during a missions trip to Hungary. And, she’s only six! Children who look beyond themselves and don’t take their possessions and blessings for granted will be more grateful than those who are self-absorbed.

I appreciated the words two of my colleagues used when I spoke with them about this. One said, “Children are inundated with material possessions. I think this tends to dull their level of gratitude. It gives them an entitlement mentality.” The other added, “It’s more difficult to express gratitude for what we have come to expect as routine.”

Another colleague shared this comment: “Because children are often immediately given what they ask for, they lose the opportunity to really want something and to wait for it. Waiting increases the joy in receiving, which may result in heartfelt gratitude.” Another friend had this to say: “How can children be thankful if they always get what they want simply by letting it be known. I believe sometimes the most loving thing we can do for our children is to deny them.”

McCullough states it well: “When we express gratitude, we experience, however fleeting and brief, a moment of contentment. Instead of reaching out toward more, we pause to enjoy what we have. This is why gratitude has a hard time surviving. We live in a culture of consumption that constantly tells us we need more.”

Let’s commit to doing what we can so our children will respond to more of life’s circumstances with a grateful heart.