Experiencing Gratitude Together
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Teaching your children the beauty of being grateful
On a crisp October day, I was in an old motel on the New Jersey Shore sitting in that locale’s version of a fancy restaurant. The clearly inexperienced waiter came over and first took dinner orders from my 18- and 12-year-old sons who sat across from me. Then he took the steak salad order from my 81-year-old mother who sat next to me. I ordered the same salad as my mother, rightly suspecting that it would somehow come drenched in mayonnaise. And I felt gratitude.
I dislike the shore, motels, and salads with mayonnaise, but it didn’t matter. The two boys in front of me were handsome, smart, happy, and kind. They, and I, had been through the kind of life situations that stop conversations cold. But there they were. My mother next to me was healthy and twinkling.
I got back to the motel room, stretched out across the scratchy sheets, and looked up “gratitude.” Wikipedia said, “The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.”
I like the definition, but something is missing. When I think of gratitude, I also think of wonder. Awe at the bigness and beauty of often-small things. Or perhaps more accurately, the ability to see wonder and beauty in small things.
I once said to my younger son, “I am so happy that you and your brother are grateful.” He twinkled and said, “You are grateful that we are grateful.” Yes, that was it. He understood.
Children are not by nature grateful creatures. They are little beasts. Gratitude is something they learn. In adults, I see gratitude at the core of people I respect the most. My own deep sense of gratitude has saved me in dark storms. How do you develop this trait in children? Especially when, from time to time, that most ungrateful phrase, “You ungrateful little brat,” echoes in your brain—and with luck it does not slip out of your mouth.
There is no formula for building gratitude in children, like building muscles. In chatting with friends and family, however, a few themes emerged.
Gratitude is not comparison
What lesson are you teaching when you serve food at a soup kitchen with your children? Is it to be grateful for the food you have that the people you are serving do not? Or is it to be grateful that you get to be part of a community that cares for one another? Emphasize the first, and you risk teaching your children contempt for and fear of those who have less. They might also wonder if those who have more than they do have fear of and contempt for them. Gratitude is about the blessings that you have without comparison to others.
Punishments don’t teach gratitude
Sometimes you have to take something away from your children that they value. Your child isn’t being polite? Fine, take away his phone. That will show him that you mean business. It will set limits. Both of these are essential to raising kids with a strong sense of gratitude. But telling him through your gritted teeth that he should be grateful that he has a phone at all? That might not be so helpful.
Celebrate each other
My sister started a wonderful tradition. Before holiday dinners, we go around the table, and each person says what he or she is grateful for about each other. There is no picking and choosing. Each person says something about everyone at the table. No exceptions. Sometimes the most touching ones are about family members who have been a bit difficult—and I am one some years. Still, no matter how difficult someone has been, we are all grateful for something about him or her. Energy. Passion. Bringing bacon. There is always something for which to be grateful.
End each day with a gratitude list
One great way to help increase your capacity for gratitude is to end the day by creating a gratitude list. My pastor does this with her children in the context of prayer, but it doesn’t have to be done that way. Remember various parts of your day and your life for which you are thankful. At bedtime, Pastor Ann asks her children, “What are you thankful for today?” If they need additional prodding, she will ask, “What was the best part of your day?” or “When did you feel really good about yourself?” She often adds some moments of thanks of her own so that she models an attitude of gratitude for them.
Be grateful for your children
Children learn to love by being loved. They also learn to be grateful for others when others are grateful for them. I may take this to the extreme. I will often pass one of my children and say, “How did I get so lucky to get such a great kid?” They are older now, and they smile and indulge me. Sometimes I get lucky, and one will say back, “How did we get lucky enough to get such a great mom?” And then we are all just loving each other.
It is not all Candy Land
My friend Vanessa, a mother of four boys, reminds me to include “make them work” in the list of ways to raise grateful children. She says, “Don’t hide the truth of how hard life really is. Let them take responsibility, try it out—from doing their own laundry to buying groceries for a month. They will appreciate your carrying, schlepping, working, and huffing to provide for them.” She is saying, give them real responsibilities. Let them struggle a bit. I agree. They will appreciate the dinner that they helped to cook. I’ve never seen a kid help with dinner and then demand that a second dinner be made because she or he doesn’t like the first one.
Don’t spoil them
This advice comes from my 12-year-old. He says that kids who have a lot of stuff just demand more because they don’t know how difficult it is to get. They just expect people to give them stuff. He says, “It might not seem good for the kid right away [not to give the kid everything], but then they will have more friends and be more likable.” Did I mention that I am grateful for this kid?
Let them pick out presents
The more kids get to be involved in the details of picking out presents or cooking a special birthday breakfast, the more they learn about all the love and care that go into doing something special for someone. Once they understand it better, they can appreciate it more. And if it is fun, they will start to like doing thoughtful things.
Let the mess and snarkiness go
When your children do something kind to express their love and gratitude, such as making pancakes, it can be messy. Let the mess go, and see the beauty of the moment. Teenagers can show gratitude in snarky ways. Remember that they are just teenagers. If they bring you flowers or a gift, no matter how surly the delivery, see that they are taking a step in the right direction. And let them know that you are grateful.
Gratitude is a gift that we can help our children develop. If we do, we make their lives—and our own—richer in the process. And people around them won’t find them insufferable. That is good, too.
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Robin Rogers is an associate professor of sociology at Queens College, City University of New York. She lives in Brooklyn with her two boys.
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