Essay,  Life Story,  Life with Two

teaching gratefulness


In between forgetting to slather on sunscreen and forgetting to comb anyone’s hair, I can’t get this thought out of my head—how do you teach gratefulness?

I’m not expecting them to grab the spray bottle every morning and clean the floors but the four year old also doesn’t have any specific daily tasks assigned to her. More often it is a request to “run and grab your water bottle for me” or “help Joan move the chair over here” which she does very willingly.

I also ask Joan, the two-year old, to pick up things or put something back after she drags it out. Usually she frowns at me and says, “nocan’t.” “Why can’t you?” “Still reading,” said while she stares vacantly off at a wall. “Mama do it.” 

Her young knack of disregard, the blithe ease with which she shrugs off my request makes me half-smile for a second and then feel overwhelmed with annoyance.

Sample day of the girls’ last week: wake up, eat breakfast, and a friend comes over. Pull out all the dress-up stuff, play dress-up changing clothes every 15 minutes for a couple hours. Share mini-ice cream cones. Have lunch, share another mini-ice cream cone. Make art in the art room with washi tape and pastels. Have a quiet time where Joan naps and Lux gets to watch her favorite 25 minutes of Octonauts. Wake up, help mom make chocolate covered strawberries for a friend, snacking all the while. Play in the living room alternating their fighting/sharing/loving/complaining song-and-dance while mom makes more food and does all the dishes. Mom packs a picnic and head outside for the last couple hours of the day, armed with food, balls, and a picnic blanket. Come home, read stories, go to bed.

Are things getting too idyllic? Am I a flourishing event planner with a preschool speciality–a flare for the lighthearted and festive? This is not an exceptional day in the life of the Ringenberg girls. I could pull from any other day of that week and list the pleasures—activity, food, activity, game.

As a stay-at-home mom in the city equipped with modern conveniences in my home, I am free to do this stuff with them. If we do laundry on the weekends, I clean for roughly thirty minutes of every day, and I cook for maybe an hour (but that’s by-myself-time in a good way). Are there so few demands on my schedule that I’m turning their daily lives into some kind of bucolic Disneyland? (Bucolic is the very word doesn’t apply though. They are not running in the fields picking wildflowers and chasing cow tails. They are gently fingering flowers grown in window boxes hanging over the sidewalk, reminded to touch, but not pick.)


But no matter how idyllic, I still have a four-year old who complains to me about her day. She asks “But mom, why can’t we go on the merry go round again?” “Why no lemonade/candy/ice cream today?” It must seem to her that we could do anything, if only I would just set my mind to it. And largely my explanations aren’t logical, they must seem almost whimsical to her—we aren’t having ice cream because we’re having dessert tonight. We don’t buy lemonade every day, only some days.

Isn’t her approach a little of what we encourage in Americans, especially American consumers? Ask for more, see what else you can get, fight for what you deserve–a refund in full, receipt be damned. I wonder how many times a day I model those values to the girls instead of Christian ones: love all, the last shall be first, put others before yourself, come humbly before God.

A few days ago, while washing dishes, I examined the contents of the sink and realized I could probably teach Lux to wash the morning load with a few tries. Later, when Joan was napping, I heralded it with trumpets as a new project and Lux took it on cheerfully. The floor was doused with soapy water and it took twenty more minutes than it would have taken me, but it was entirely successful.

But then I haven’t remembered to follow up and ask her to do it agin in the days since.

I dug out the letters my mom wrote to me on my birthday each year (I know! another post for another time), and found the one from when I turned four. She writes that my older brother and I were talking turns emptying the dishwasher and setting the table at that point. I was the second born so she had more time to figure it out, just as Joan has more expected of her than Lux did. (Mostly socially though—she’s expected to apologize, to share, to take turns. Things I didn’t ask of Lux at two.)

But gratefulness is such an undercurrent in a personal ocean. Its presence is so easily overpowered by the waves of needs and wants that lap steadily. It’s hard to feel its tug, even harder to distill it, and show it to another.



  • Catherine Clifton

    Yes! This! Not sure if I’ve commented on here before, but I’ve been following along for awhile now. I have a 5 year old, a just-turned-3 year old and one due in December. None of my kids have specific daily tasks (except putting their dishes in the sink), but I’m thinking of coming up with some chore charts for the fall. I’ll probably pitch it more as work (in the Montessori sense) and ways they help/contribute around the house without any kind of reward, other than placing stickers on the chart. Because we are definitely lacking in the gratitude around here, too!

    • Rachael Ringenberg

      Sounds great. I know that the girls would love to feel more useful around the house, it’s just a matter of me delegating and being consistent. In that sense…I think the chore chart is probably more of a reminder for us than anything!

  • Emily

    For the sake of comparison, I also have a 4 year old and so far his daily tasks are to get himself dressed each morning and change himself into his pajamas at night. He has to feed the cat, set and clear the table and clean up his own toys, art supplies, clothing etc. None of this is done perfectly or without some help and/or reminding but he is definitely capable of doing it all. Good luck figuring out what works for your family!

  • Erin

    Oh man! So many thoughts on this one. As someone who grew up in a Catholic family (not sure the particulars of faith matter here, but there was definitely some classic “Jesus died on the cross for you” guilt going on), I sometimes think that gratefulness was *overemphasized.* Without implying that my childhood was all doom and gloom (it was decidedly not that), there was a fair amount of talk about sacrifice, privilege, repetance, etc. Sometimes I think back to making my bed at three and setting the table and loading the dishwasher at four, and think…”Yikes!” And sometimes I think about it and think, “Amazing!” Striking the right balance is definitely something I’m thinking about as we inch (slowly) toward two.

    • Rachael Ringenberg

      As an outsider, but occasionally visitor, I love so much about the catholic faith. But man, on guilt, it IS pretty brutal. (I think doctrinally it’s gotten a little better in the last 20 years, but I’m not enough of an expert to say?)

      That thinking back on your own childhood and wavering about what was best…and then remembering: we’re going to make our own unique parenting mistakes no matter what! Yikes.

      I’ve always been inspired by the Jewish approach to rituals and habits, the work seems more like a cyclical preparation for feasting/celebration…I wonder if what that slight change in perspective would do anything for us?
      Thanks for this perspective–so interesting!

  • Katrina Harrington

    I can’t give any tried-and-true helpful advice since I feel I’m rocking in the same boat, but I do understand your worries! I’m finally in the middle of reading The Temperament God Gave You after many recommendations to do so (there is one just focused on children also), and it is eye opening to see Ryan and Conor’s temperaments laid out so well and how I can adjust my parenting and attempts at teaching virtue according to their personal temperaments.

  • Andrea Barnett

    Beautifully said. I think about this often, but still haven’t found a balance. Having a differently-abled child, I find myself pulling back on expectations, simply because I know how hard it can be for him to even make it through the day (therapy, stressors, etc.). I think to myself, “He works SO hard already, what harm is there in him playing for an hour instead of helping me make dinner?” Later, I worry (and worry some more) that my attitude isn’t doing him any favors in the long run. And yet he is already much better at gratitude than I am. Some of it might be personality (thinking of the difference between me and my sibs here), but I think some of it is born from that kind of struggle. People tend to appreciate what does not come easily. And if very little comes easily? Then the volume and scope of that appreciation is so much deeper. I’m still not sure the best way ahead for us, whether or not more responsibility will help or harm, but I am loving the responses here. Lots to think about.

    • Rachael Ringenberg

      I agree. I think you and I both know we’re probably a little ahead of the game on taking this developmental thing too seriously, but also that we could end up with an oddly bratty six-year-old before we’ve blinked! More than anything (as always!) I’ve come away wondering what spirit I’ve exhibited to them, and what my fallback demeanor really is.

  • Jenny Haller

    Hi! Gratefulness is one of the character qualities I want to instill the most in my children. I know that someday I’ll be able to take them to other countries/cultures and they’ll understand better. I know it took me until I was older (25ish!) to not be so selfish; even still, I am working on it. we read a book called Greedy Graham’s where a boy named Graham got eaten by pigs because he was so greedy and selfish. So now whenever we are out at the store or somewhere where they might be getting a little greedy, everybody says don’t get the “greedy grahams”! We only read the [library] book once but the jingle has stuck. Another thing we do is when they do complain we say “the Haller family doesn’t complain, instead we are grateful” and I asked them to name three things they’re thankful for in that moment. For example, they frequently get in the car and complain about how hot it is ….whining about turning the air on; so I tell them to say things that they’re grateful for like air-conditioning, tank tops, cold water etc. As far as chores go and helping out, that’s definitely a daily battle. But after about three or four months of doing the same chore, my 4 and 5 1/2 year-old do it every day without much fight. (One puts dishes away, one loads). real quick before this gets super long, I’m all about bribery and rewards. If they want to watch a show, they have to pick up 15 toys on the floor. It’s all a balance! If they want toys from the dollar bin or special treats when we are out and they have to have a good attitude Or be extra helpful etc. holidays and parties are a whole other topic tho. My Girls cannot handle other people’s presents and cake!

  • Jessica Clare

    Beautifully written as always! I used to nanny for a 3 and 4 year-old, and when they would do the “why can’t you get us more lemonade/more dessert/put on another movie” you described above, I would say I wish I could! And they’d say to each other, oh she WISHES we could have more cookies, but for some reason unknown, she can’t make that happen! Definitely not a long term solution, and doesn’t really teach what you’re going for…but like I said, it worked, oddly, when you just can’t have the back and forth argument one more time! and I think of it fondly very often…they were so dear! I also just love this type of post. I worry about this same issue of gratefulness for myself, as an adult, as a preschool teacher, and future (God willing) parent. More like these always welcome 🙂

    • Rachael Ringenberg

      I like this Jessica! It’s true, I do wish we could buy lemonade every day. Why not let her in on that fact? Just like sometimes I say, oh I guess I didn’t bring my money with me, a fact I’m truly surprised by. They nod solemnly.

  • Laura Elizabeth

    This was a great post. I worry about this for my future children as well… how do we love them well and simultaneously teach them the value of hard work, not getting what we want all the time, and self-control? It seems a daunting task. Prayer for wisdom is the only solution I can come up with right now.

  • Hannah Gritsko

    I recently started reading your blog and I really enjoyed this post as instilling gratefulness in my future children is something I’ve frequently pondered. I think I’ve thought so much about it because I feel like a sense of gratefulness really was imparted to me as a child and I’ve been trying to figure out the different factors that made that happen.

    I’m the second oldest in a family of six kids, was also homeschooled and, as a one income household with that many kids, finances were definitely tight as I was growing up. We certainly weren’t begging for bread poor by any stretch of the imagination, but going out to eat was for special occasions and I can remember two distinct times that I set foot in a mall before the age of 13. So many things seemed like a special treat, although I honestly never remember feeling deprived.

    As I entered my teenage years, my family’s financial situation became a lot freer and so all of those things that seemed like novelties before became a more regular occurrence. All of this to say, I believe those years of simpler living shaped my mindset and attitude. But, I struggle with this because I want to take my kids out to eat and buy them new clothes and take them on fun trips. I worry that I will veer too much on the other side of the spectrum and as such my kids will end up totally ungrateful and just expecting those things as the norm.

    I’ve asked my mom her thoughts on the matter and she told me that the most important thing is to MODEL it for your children. If you have a grateful heart, a grateful outlook, your kids will pick up on it. Verbalize it, even in the small things. Basically the idea of gratefulness as a mindset, a lifestyle. I like that idea, and I hope that I can help to instill that in my children. But I know that it won’t be easy. I love the last paragraph of your post…how DO you distill it, and show it to another?

  • Chelsea

    I recently came across your beautiful blog via Reading My Tea Leaves and have really enjoying your insight and perspective on this topic. I felt it necessary to pass on the title of this great book that I’ve just started in an attempt to be more grateful in my own life. It’s called the Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan and I haven’t finished the whole thing but just read the chapter on spreading gratitude with your family. It’s opened my mind to so many small ways of being grateful throughout the day and teaching gratitude through your own attitude and actions. One of the most interesting parts of Kaplan’s research is how being grateful actually changes neural connections (I hope I used that right – not sure on the exact science) in your brain to be happier and lead a more fulfilling life. I’m gifting the book to so many friends and family for the holidays, not because they’re all ungrateful but because I think everyone should read this book!

    Happy Holidays to you and your family!

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