Helping our children deal with jealousy is no easy task. But helping them learn how to nip jealousy in the bud now will pay huge dividends for them later on as adults.
Does this scenario look familiar? You take your son to his friend’s 5th birthday party, armed with a colorfully wrapped gift. When it’s time to open presents, your son not only thinks the new Hot Wheels track set is totally awesome, he also wants to be the first one to play with it. And then he really, really wants you to buy one for him too, pretty please. By the time you get to the car, he is not only pouting that he doesn’t get the cool new car set, but all the toys he currently owns are suddenly not any fun either.
Ah, Jealousy. That old familiar feeling that whines, “I don’t have what I want and I can’t be happy until I do.” It’s with us from the very first time we get a toy and see that our friend has a better one. And even though we’re aware of it, and we don’t like it, jealousy and envy continue to eat at us the rest of our lives! Toys turn into clothes and cars, jobs and houses, Pinterest and Pottery Barn.
The problem is that it doesn’t just go away on its own.
My little ones still need a lot of communication just to identify these feelings and what to do with them. But eventually, they will grow into full grown men who will still need to know how to address it. So, as Christian parents, how do we equip them to deal with it? More than that, how do we help them to nip it in the bud before it begins to take root into their hearts and strangle their contentment?
Learn to Practice Thankfulness
Have you ever heard the little Veggie Tales song that goes like this: “A thankful heart is a happy heart. I’m glad for what I have, that’s an easy way to start”? I can hear the song in my head right now, (and it’ll probably be there the rest of the day now too.) It’s a cute little ditty, but it’s pretty profound as well:
The result of thankfulness is happiness. It’s just what happens when you have a grateful heart.
Scripture is filled to the brim with God’s commands to be thankful—in every circumstance, particularly the hard ones. (Philippians 4:4.-7). It’s a protection for our hearts against all kinds of ugly sins that can take root, things like bitterness, envy, strife, etc. James says that at the root of fighting with one another is the fact that we have let our wants and longings control us. He says, “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? [i.e., the things you want] You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. . .” (James 4:1,2, italics mine).
I don’t know about you, but it’s not really my knee-jerk reaction to be thankful in the midst of difficult circumstances or when I feel like I don’t have all that I need or even want. And I know my kiddos are not going to naturally think that way either. Thankfulness is something that has to be learned. They have to be led to practice thankfulness with conversations and reflections about the incredible amount of things we have to be thankful for, beginning with God’s daily provision for us.
Cultivate a Heart of Contentment
Contentment and thankfulness are pretty similar, but I think of contentment as wanting what you already have—Feeling like it is enough. I don’t have a magic wand that can make my son happy with what he already has, but I can control what comes and goes in our home. And sometimes, things just need to stop coming in. Sometimes we have to take a break from television and all the incessant toy commercials. We need to not do or buy something our son wants because he needs to practice dealing with that. When he throws a tantrum about cleaning up his room full of toys, I throw the toys that are on the floor in the trash (or donate) so that he is forced to decide whether he wants the responsibility of keeping up with tons of stuff.[By the way, I love this woman, Ruth Soukup’s, take on the toy issue in her home: Essentially, she got rid of most of her kids’ toys and found that they were actually happier and much more content. I haven’t made that kind of leap, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world, either!]
Proverbs 15:16 says, “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and turmoil with it.” I want my boys to have that kind of contentment! But, like thankfulness, our human nature will never default to it. We have to help our kids reflect on what it means to be content and model for them what it looks like in our own lives. I have found that it takes a constant vigilance to monitor this because the desire to accumulate more stuff is a permanent part of our western society. One tell-tale sign for us is when our son starts to develop an insatiable need for more. As a parent, it is far more important to me that my child learns contentment for a lifetime than that he is temporarily happy today.
Besides, it’s never going to be enough, is it? The more we get, the more we want.
Help Them to Understand Their Motivation
If you’re a follower of Christ, this is where the rubber meets the road. I think a lot of the non-believing world might agree with most of what I’ve said about thankfulness and contentment, at least in broad generalities. But for those of us who believe God’s Word, the reality is that we have to call out the motivation behind jealousy and envy for what it really is: Selfishness.
Bottom line: Is wanting what someone else has, rather than being happy for them, “lov[ing] your neighbor as yourself?” (Matthew 22:39) Nope, it’s selfishness. Being able to recognize our own selfishness as sin and bring it to the Lord in repentance is a major way we grow in maturity, but I’ve been surprised in my own life how difficult it can be to recognize selfishness for what it really is. Imagine how much harder it must be for little ones. But if we can help them form that habit now, imagine how much God can use that to help them grow!
Learn How to Rejoice With Others
It’s not too hard to feel compassion for and come alongside someone who is hurting. This is definitely a way that we show love in action to one another. But what about celebrating alongside someone who has achieved or gotten something that I wanted and didn’t get? Being able to do this is also love in action. And it requires us to set ourselves aside with all of our disappointments and unfulfilled longings.
This is a hard one to do, even for adults. But when we do it, it dampens our jealousy by helping us to remember that we are on the same team. It reminds us that what God has planned for someone else is not the same story He has planned for me. I have to bring God’s sovereignty into my situations, which is humbling and leads me back to trust and reliance on Him.
Of course, my 5 year old may not be quite ready to fully understand all that. Whether or not he understands it, though, learning to rejoice with others will help him to practice loving others even when he doesn’t feel like it. Which is pretty good preparation for marriage and parenting too!
Not a Quick Fix
It would be really nice to be able to explain a few things here and there to my son the next time he is jealous and discontented, and then see instant results. But it never works like that—not for anyone, including me. Thankfulness, contentment, selflessness—those things take time and practice and more time and practice.
It’s worth it, though.
Like any other growth that occurs in my son’s heart, I can’t make it happen. Only the Lord can. But it is my responsibility to teach him so that when sin comes knocking he knows how to bring it God. That’s one of the wonderful things about being a parent. We are given an inside look into our children’s hearts and are made aware of the ways they need help and instruction. It’s a privilege to address something as common and “trivial” as childhood jealousy and use it as an opportunity to show him how God would have us think about it.
Not easy. But worth it.