Life as a Parent Planting Seeds of Gratitude in Little Hearts: the Gratitude Tree
Even for the most disciplined among us, being in a continuous state of gratitude to God is a difficult endeavor. But it is something that we constantly must strive to attain. There are several examples in the Quran where Allah (swt) requests our gratitude to Him, then says that the opposite of gratitude is outright denial:
“And [remember] when your Lord proclaimed, ‘If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor]; but if you deny, indeed, My punishment is severe’” (14:7).
“So remember Me; I will remember you. And be grateful to Me and do not deny Me” (2:152).
Allah (swt) is telling us here that we have two choices – being grateful to Him or denying His favours upon us, which is akin to denying Him as our Lord. Gratitude isn’t just a nice thing to practice. It is necessary to our faith to understand and acknowledge the blessings that God continuously showers upon us.
In a portion of the story of Prophet Sulaiman (as), he hears the speech of an ant warning her fellow ants that Sulaiman’s army was approaching them. The ant instructs the rest of her colony to enter their homes so Sulaiman’s army doesn’t accidentally step on them. His reaction to hearing this is to make dua to Allah – it’s one of my favourite duas to be recorded in the Quran:
“So he smiled, amused at her speech, and said, ‘My Lord, enable me to be grateful for Your favor which You have bestowed upon me and upon my parents and to do righteousness of which You approve. And admit me by Your mercy into [the ranks of] Your righteous servants’” (27:19).
Prophet Sulaiman’s dua to Allah is so much more holistic than meets the eye. The wording of this dua in Arabic (especially the word “awzi’ny” which is translated here as “enable me”) implies that Sulaiman (as) is not simply seeking Allah’s help to be grateful to Him. He is asking for something deeper and most lasting, which is for Allah (swt) to remove anything within him that might ever block or prevent him from having true gratitude.
How many people actually ask Allah (swt) for the ability to be grateful for what He has already given them? Gratitude in and of itself is a blessing worth asking for!
But many of us have these mental or emotional blocks that prevent us from understanding what true gratitude looks like. It’s hard to admit, but we think things like – I’ll start being grateful when Allah gives me xyz. Or – my life isn’t all that great right now so there’s not much to be thankful for.
All of these attitudes, whether they are conscious or subconscious, will eventually manifest themselves in our words and actions with our children. Before attempting to instill in our children a sense of gratitude towards God, we first have to question whether or not we understand gratitude.
Allah (swt) says: “And He gave you from all you asked of Him. And if you should count the favor of Allah, you could not enumerate them. Indeed, mankind is [generally] most unjust and ungrateful” (14:34).
This verse isn’t only addressed to people who are incredibly wealthy or famous or powerful. The verse is addressed to everyone. There are blessings that Allah (swt) has given us that we don’t even consider or think about at all: the alternation of night and day, the rain that falls and the fruits that subsequently grow, and the rivers and oceans being able to carry ships.
And we have each been blessed with so much in our personal lives that if we were to even begin listing our blessings, we’d never be able to stop. Those who think they have nothing to be grateful for, just haven’t used their minds very well.
Research has shown that practicing gratitude can increase your happiness by up to 25%. Think about that – nothing in your life would actually be changing except your frame of mind, and it makes you happier. The more you thank Allah (swt) for his blessings, the more grateful and contented you become.
So how does one go about planting the seeds of gratitude in young minds?
The verse above says if we were to attempt to count the blessings of Allah, we would never be able to enumerate them. But it doesn’t say don’t count the blessings of Allah. In order to internalize an attitude of gratitude, we have to begin examining and counting our blessings. Of course, we always have to lead by example in anything we attempt to teach our children. If we want them to be grateful, we have to be grateful first.
I recently stumbled upon the idea of a “Gratitude Tree” which is used around the time of Thanksgiving holidays. But it’s such a wonderful idea that I don’t think it should be confined to only one time of the year.
The idea is that you put up the image of a tree on a central wall in your home, and fill it with “leaves of gratitude.” You can cut the shape of a large tree and branches out of a few brown Bristol boards or brown poster paper – or, if you are really artistically-inclined, paint it right onto your wall! For those less artistically-inclined (there’s no shame), you can just purchase a vinyl tree wall decal and use it in the same way.
Every day, you and your children will each take a pre-cut piece of leaf/flower-shaped paper and write one thing that you are grateful to God for, big or small…oxygen, froot loops, eyesight, peanut butter, autumn, new shoes, etc. Then, tape the pieces of paper onto the branches of the tree that you have set up. It’s a simple act that will take less than a minute per day.
Over time and as you incorporate this small act of thankfulness into your family’s day, you’ll watch the tree grow and blossom. Likewise, having a visual reminder of how full your home is of gratitude for big and little things can allow the gratitude in your and your children’s hearts to grow and blossom. The act of writing down the things you are grateful for will naturally increase your satisfaction with what you have. And the presence of the tree will serve as a constant reminder to your children that their lives are full of blessings.
There are many variations of this exercise. Each child can have a separate but smaller tree in his or her room; you can choose to have a weekly/monthly short family circle with your kids to talk about what they wrote, etc. There are also tons of other ideas out there on how to incorporate gratitude into your family’s daily life. I chose the gratitude tree because the symbolism of growing seeds of gratitude into trees of gratitude is beautiful. And generally speaking, children are visual learners who need small but consistent reminders to internalize these types of concepts.
Gratitude is not simply an act of the heart. It’s a conscious striving to acknowledge your blessings, which should necessarily give rise to the desire to worship your Creator to the best of your ability.
And since gratitude is not just an act of the heart, be conscious of how your limbs are acting in response to (perceived) higher levels of gratitude. If you find yourself more inclined to spend extra time and effort in acts of worship, then you’re on the right track. If it doesn’t change your attitude towards God or worshiping Him, then you still haven’t understood what gratitude means.
The reward for gratitude isn’t just a happier life in this world. It is a way to achieve nearness to Allah in the hereafter. Allah (swt) is Ash-Shakur – The Most Appreciative. He rewards thankfulness and He is appreciative of those who thank Him.
May Allah (swt) make us and our children amongst those who are truly thankful to Him.
“This is from the favor of my Lord to test me whether I will be grateful or ungrateful. And whoever is grateful – his gratitude is only for [the benefit of] himself. And whoever is ungrateful – then indeed, my Lord is Free of need and Generous” (27:40).